Tag Archives: Schwartz

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“All right. Caine, heal who you can,” Ruda said, breaking the stunned silence. “Arquin, help him.”

“Um…”

“Yes, I know you suck at it, which is why you’re following his lead. Juniper…do something about that.” She pointed at the huddled form of Milady, turning to her next targets as Toby and Gabriel headed toward the nearest source of pained groans. “Locke, Fross, I need intel. Check at the doors and windows, see what you can see without getting lost in that mess. And that leaves…”

She abruptly bounded onto the crate serving as steps to the improvised dais and from there to the platform itself, prompting a startled squeal from the man now lying flat upon it with his arms over his head.

Ruda bent to seize him by the collar and dragged him bodily to his knees, idly resting the tip of her rapier against the crates in conspicuous view.

“Hi there,” she said with a grin that was far too broad to be sincere. “While my friends try to salvage what they can of your friends, I’m gonna need you to tell me where your other friends toddled off to.”

The man stared up at her, mouth moving convulsively for a moment until he closed it to swallow.

“The ones with the metal appendages,” she prompted, deliberately flexing her wrist and scraping the tip of her sword along the wood near him. “I’m sure you must’ve noticed them.”

“I…” He swallowed again before continuing hoarsely, staring at a point past her shoulder. “I was… They helped me, don’t you see? I was nothing, but they taught me…”

“They picked up a loser at his low point, yes, I understand how religions work.” Ruda gave him a firm shake. “Where are the metal people?”

“My boat sank,” he said mechanically, “my son ran away to Tiraas, I had nothing…”

“HEY.” She hiked him up higher till his face was inches from hers, and his attention focused back on her. “I am not your fucking biographer. Where the fuck did your leaders go? Spit it out!”

This was fortuitously punctuated by a shriek from behind her as Toby set someone’s dislocated shoulder. The flash of golden healing light which followed only served to cast her face in ominous shadow.

Ruda’s prisoner drew a shuddering breath, but then his eyes seemed to come more into focus and he made a small shift which might have been a squaring of the shoulders had he been held in a less awkward position.

“I…can’t,” he said more quietly. “Do what you want. I have many weaknesses, but I’m no traitor.”

“Well, I respect that,” she replied, drawing back her sword arm to lift its tip till it rested against his thigh. “But it makes this really fuckin’ hard, so—”

“Hey!” Principia slipped back in from the side door through which she had departed, leaving it to bang in the wind behind her. “We’re about a block from the palace. It’s hard to hear clearly in this storm but I’m pretty sure the Rock is under attack.”

“It’s bad, Ruda!” Fross chimed, zooming in from one of the upper windows. “She’s right, the castle’s under seige—and I think for the second time! There’s Rust cultists with metal pieces holding the ramparts and someone else is attacking the south gate, I didn’t get a good look at who or what, but somebody is channeling lightning bolts at the Rust on the battlements!”

Ruda drew in a hissing breath through her teeth, then abruptly dropped the cultist. “Congrats, you are now redundant, have a nice life. We’ve gotta move, people. What’s our situation?”

“There’s…not a lot of these people I can still do anything for,” Toby reported somberly. “The good news is nobody who survived had any immediately life-threatening damage, but some of these lightning burns are going to require more complicated treatment than—”

“That’s their problem, then. There’s a hospital four streets away; if you’ve done the triage, we’re done here. Juniper? Is she going to be any use at all?”

“I…have no idea what’s wrong,” Juniper said helplessly, straightening up. She had been kneeling next to Milady, trying to get a response, but the woman had fallen into repetitive rocking and a haunted stare into space. “I can’t find any injury or curse or anything and all the magic in her makes it hard to sniff out… I mean, she smells kinda like me. She’s just gone completely bonkers, it looks like.”

“Battle shock,” Principia said curtly, striding over and squatting on her heels to peer at Milady. The woman in black didn’t seem to notice. “She just slaughtered a room full of people, after all; nobody normal can go through something like that without some kind of reaction. More to the point, the only humans I’ve seen move that way are Butlers. You can’t lose a fight, can you?”

This last was in a lower tone, directed at Milady. She made no reply except to squeeze her eyes shut and begin whispering frantic apologies to no one.

“Excuse me, what?” Ruda exclaimed.

“I think she’s got a fairy curse of some kind,” Principia said, still studying Milady. “It’d explain why she smells like dryads. I knew a guy once who had something similar; he was cursed never to lose a battle.”

“How is that a curse?” Gabriel asked.

“Boy, look at this, and look at that.” Principia pointed first at Milady and then at a stretch of the floor upon which seven dead people were strewn in a mixed swamp of their own blood. “Imagine being forced to retaliate with all your full lethality whenever anybody came at you, and having no control over it. What a nightmare.”

“Well, we’ll have to leave her, then,” Ruda stated, heading toward the front door.

“We can’t do that,” Toby retorted. “Especially not here! She’s helpless, and surrounded by—”

“Aside from being the Princess here,” Principia interrupted, standing, “Punaji is right. She’s a liability. She has been a liability from the beginning, the whole time she was accompanying us into unknown danger with this hanging over her and no word of warning. Bitch could’ve had the effect triggered by anything and slaughtered half of us before we knew what was happening. Leave her, we’ve gotta move.”

“Nobody is not worth helping,” Toby said stubbornly.

“Caine, either come help save my family or fuck off. I don’t have time for this.” Ruda hauled open one of the big front doors, grabbed her hat as a gust of wind immediately tried to rip it away, and stalked out into the storm without another backward look. Principia went right on her heels, and Fross darted after them, Juniper following more slowly and with several uncertain glances back at Milady.

“You can’t tell me this is right,” Toby said, turning to Gabriel. “She just saved our—”

“Toby, you were there. She started that fight, because of that…whatever it was that went off, which she never warned us about. Locke has a point, that’s murderously irresponsible at best. It could’ve killed us all down there; it’s actually a miracle it didn’t.” He glanced down at Milady, then shook his head and turned resolutely toward the door. “No, it isn’t right. It’s not. Sifa’s going to stay and watch over her, but that’s all I can spare. Sometimes you have to choose who to save, Toby. I’m choosing Ruda’s family.”

He rested a hand on Toby’s shoulder for a moment, glanced a last time down at the huddled woman, then turned and followed the others out into the storm.

Toby was the last to go, but go he did.

The group had only been out of sight for a minute, and the surviving Rust were starting to creep toward Milady, when a new figure appeared in the door, sending them fleeing toward the side entrance with a chorus of screams.

The sylph paced across the warehouse with his peculiar gait that was both a stork’s prancing and a snake’s slither, and slowly coiled his long shape around her, huge talons squelching softly in the drying blood underfoot. She didn’t respond.

“Poor, stubborn little hero,” Aradeus murmured, arching a wing protectively over her. “Mmm. You smell of pain buried not deep enough, and good advice not obeyed. You should have gone to see the healer. Always go to see the healer. Well.” He subtly tightened around her, disturbing her balance; she slumped against his silvery body, and he rested his chin atop her head. “Mmm. Great adventures will unfold tonight, but there is no evil to destroy, so I will not fight. I will observe. This is as good a place as any other, hmmm? We will watch this storm pass together.”


The gatehouse’s tiny side door was thick enough to constitute a fortress wall on its own, aside from being the narrowest door she had ever seen. Its odd proportions made it interesting to slip through and get it shut behind her against the howling storm without attracting attention. Tallie paused just inside, letting the water stream off her (it wouldn’t give her away since the whole hallway was likewise wet) and listening.

A faint rustle sounded from the room to her right, but apart from that, nothing. Once she was fairly sure no one had heard, she crept forward.

It was a narrow hall, terminating directly ahead in a stairwell that ascended to, according to Trissiny, a barracks. That would be full of Rust cultists. Though the gatehouse had a matching small door to the interior of the fortress, of course there was no convenient path from that portal to this one, which made sense defensively speaking. If anybody penetrated this entrance they would have to navigate a deliberately illogical route full of corners, stairs, and ideally soldiers, many of the halls in question lined with apertures in the ceiling and upper walls through which the Rock’s defenders could rain punishment on any intruder.

This hall had an ominous profusion of those. Hopefully the Rust hadn’t already found a use for them.

Midway down it along the right wall was a door into what Trissiny had said would be a small armory. Apparently somebody was in there, to judge by the faint scuffling she heard.

Tallie slipped up to the edge of the door, paused for a moment in thought, and then jumped. The narrowness of the hall was her ally; it gave her the perfect amount of space to brace herself across its width. Clambering up to the ceiling, she grabbed the inside of one of the dark holes meant to pour boiling oil or whatever on her, extended her body fully along the ceiling and braced her toes in another, and gingerly lowered her head to peek in through the upper edge of the doorway.

It was a cat burglar’s constant salvation: nobody ever looked up.

The armory was in pretty good order, with no signs of a struggle. That was odd, considering there were two Punaji soldiers and one half-machine man who had to have been one of these Rust characters present. One of the Punaji was bound hand and foot, lying on his side facing the door. The other lay oriented in the opposite direction, with the machine cultist kneeling between him and the entrance, apparently tying off a matching set of bindings.

Tallie hesitated, then lowered her head more fully into the room, enough to be noticeable. Sure enough, the bound soldier’s gaze shifted to her and his eyes widened.

She lowered her free hand, holding herself in place with one hand on an oil loop, one foot in another and the other braced across the hall, and held a finger to her lips. The man stared up at her, but did not otherwise react.

Two friendly soldiers present, and an enemy with his back to the door. Surely she wasn’t going to encounter any situation so fortuitous again. But how to take advantage? Tallie wasn’t a fighter even when accounting for people who weren’t partially made of metal.

Dithering nearly cost her dearly; Tallie snapped her head up at the unmistakable sound of feet running down the stairwell.

The armory had rafters across the ceiling. Trusting the architect not to have been a complete obfuscatory asshole, Tallie shifted herself forward and down at an angle, grabbing the lintel of the door frame with both hands, and swung her whole body feet-first into the room, vaulting straight upward.

Yes, rafters in the right place! She had to shift her angle of attack in mid-swing, but even so got her legs wrapped around a beam with a deftness that pleased her, then swung the rest of the way up to land atop it, out of view of both the door and the cultist below.

She could’ve made that jump by the age of eleven, but the very training that honed her body into a limber showpiece had left her with some habits the Guild had had to laboriously beat from her. Training had paid off, though, and she made her movements economical and silent. The fallen soldier’s eyes tracked her, but the cultist gave no sign he’d heard a thing.

That was all the time she had before the approaching footsteps finished approaching. Another cultist, likewise with a whole limb that looked like some crazy dwarven contraption, but this one a woman.

“Rasul!” she said breathlessly. “Are you still—what are you doing? Just drop a screambell and leave them!”

At the woman’s entrance the soldier who had noticed Tallie shifted his glare to her and did not glance upward, giving no sign of her presence. Eserites weren’t big on prayer, but she offered a silent thanks for meeting friendlies who weren’t complete and utter rubes.

“You’ve heard the sound those things make,” Rasul replied calmly, finishing binding the second soldier’s arms behind his back. “It’s painful, and you can’t tell me it won’t cause permanent damage to the ears if you just leave it on someone. We didn’t come here to be cruel.”

“Well, we don’t have time to be kind,” she snapped. “Somebody is assaulting the south gate—somebody with magic. There’s lightning bolts coming from the sky and some kind of a thing trying to ram the gate down, and the screamlances aren’t doing a thing to it. We have to hold them off until Ayuvesh can finish his work!”

“I see.” Rasul straightened, the joints in his legs—both metal starting from above the knees—clicking oddly, then again as he bowed to the two fallen soldiers. “I’m sorry about this, brothers. You should be all right here; it won’t be long.”

With no more word, he strode out after his comrade, who had already bolted back up the hallway. The man moved with amazing smoothness for somebody whose legs were clockwork.

Tallie listened for the sound of his heavy steps to recede up the stairs before dropping lightly to the floor. Whipping out her belt knife, she knelt next to the second soldier, just because his bound hands were facing her.

She took the precaution of reaching her free hand around to cover his mouth, and a good thing, too, as the sudden contact prompted a yell. The other trooper started to pull himself upright, struggling against his bonds, as Tallie approached his compatriot with a knife.

“Hush up, rubes!” she hissed. “I’m gonna cut you loose, hold still a minute.”

“Not that I’m ungrateful but who the hell are you?” the first man demanded. It was a fair enough question; she obviously wasn’t Rust, but equally obviously wasn’t military or even Punaji.

“I’m with the Thieves’ Guild,” she said quietly, sawing through the just-tied cord as rapidly as she could. “I’ve got more thieves, a Salyrite witch and the Hand of damn well Avei coming to help, but I need to get them inside before they can be much use.”

“Well, fuck me running,” the man she was untying said in amazement.

“Later, sailor,” Tallie grunted. “Business before pleasure. You guys know the layout; I need to get that gate open so my people can hit these assholes from behind. What’s—”

“Uh, first things first,” interrupted the first man she’d seen, his eyes now fixed on a spot at which men had an annoying tendency to stare. “Why’ve you got a glowing rat in your cleavage?”


“This is taking too long. Is it taking too long?” Layla altered her pacing pattern, beginning to orbit the rest of the group instead of stalking up and down in front of them. “How long does it take to break into an impregnable fortress? I should have gone with her, I can move almost as quietly… You’d know if something happened to her, right, Schwartz? You’d tell us?”

“Oy.” As she passed, Darius reached out and seized his sister by the back of her neck. “You can’t possibly think that’s helping him concentrate.”

“It’s all right,” Schwartz said without opening his eyes. “Concentration is as much emotional as intellectual. As long as you lot are squabbling, I know the world is still in order.”

Darius snorted a laugh at that, but Layla just shook him off with a glare and resumed pacing, now chewing her bottom lip.

Schwartz hadn’t bothered with any kind of ritual circle for this, though off to his right was another small improvised altar made from cobblestones pried up out of the streets themselves, this one with a handful of loose crystals of various colors on its top. He was sitting cross-legged, his spine straight and eyes closed, with elbows braced against his sides and both arms extended palm-up. His right hand appeared to be on fire; in his left rested another cobblestone which constantly trembled and twitched as if he were bouncing it, though his hand was not moving.

“Waiting is part of any heist,” Trissiny said calmly, “as well as any military campaign. This is a bit of both. Trust our friend like she does us; we all know what we’re doing.”

“If it was you in there I’d be less worried,” Layla muttered, not slowing. “Or Schwartz. The rest of us are just apprentices.”

“None of you are just anything,” Trissiny said automatically, then let out a soft sigh when Layla scowled at her. “All right, I take your point, but still. Tallie is good. We wouldn’t have let her do this if she wasn’t good enough.”

“Wait—there’s trouble.”

Schwartz suddenly opened his eyes, and Darius winced looking at him. Behind his spectacles, they glowed orange-red, the same shade as Meesie’s fur.

“Trouble where?” Trissiny asked, instinctively grasping her sword. “Do we need to pull her out?”

“Tallie’s okay,” the witch reported. “She’s rescued a couple of soldiers, and the Rust have been drawn off by our diversion; Meesie can’t hear any strange noise weapons nearby. The problem is at the other gate.” He suddenly grimaced and had to close his hands over the cobblestone, which was suddenly trying to jerk fully away from him. “I’m—they’ve—okay, those sound weapons aren’t bothering the elemental but it turns out they’ve got more mundane methods…”

“Stay here and be ready to help Tallie if she needs it,” Trissiny ordered the siblings, drawing her blade. “Sounds like this is my cue.”


The group pulled back together as they neared the fortress. The storm appeared to be on the wane, Naphthene’s fury ebbing off as quickly as it had come; the wind had slackened notably and the lightning was both less frequent and more distant. There was no relief from the downpour, however, and they were all drenched from the moment of stepping outside.

Fross, as usual, darted ahead, shooting around the corner that led their current street onto the open square before the Rock’s south gate. Principia was the first after her, but the rest were not far behind. They all piled to an immediate stop, though, trying to make sense of what they were seeing.

Something was trying to smash the gates like a living battering ram, a low-slung creature about the shape of a crocodile but apparently covered in a shell of stone. Or stones, more correctly, thickly clustered over it like scales. In fact, it was hard to tell details through the rain, but they appeared to be exactly the same color and texture as the cobblestone plaza over which it was charging again.

The weird creature was clearly trying to bash the gate itself in; even as they watched, it backed up and charged forward once more, its blunt head crashing against the outer gates. There was no telling how long it had been at this, but there was already a sizable splintered dent around the spot where the gates met, evidence of repeated pounding. However, the stone monster’s efforts were no longer going so smoothly.

It appeared to be trying to ignore the Rust harassing it and focus on its task, but that was clearly growing more difficult by the moment. A person sitting astride some kind of mechanical mount and carrying a long lance was hassling it relentlessly. The machine he was riding resembled an ostrich with a long tail for balance and a steering stick like an enchanted carriage’s where its head should be. It made an awful clatter as he maneuvered it one-handed, piston-legs pounding into the cobblestones and its joints clacking and emitting gouts of steam.

Its rider swooped around in a wide arc to charge at the stone beast again even as his target backed up for another run at the gate. He lowered his lance and its head sparked alight with arcs of electricity that made an uncontrolled nimbus in the rain. It impacted the side of the creature with enough force to shove it off-balance. The impact was enough to bring the mechanical running-bird up short, and the rider only kept his grip on the lance because it was attached to his metal arm.

Another Rust cultist was nearby on foot, wielding another shock lance with which he continually jabbed and bludgeoned the stone creature. Lacking the speed and weight of the birdlike mount, his blows hadn’t enough inertia to shift it, but that electrified lance head still did damage, each blow causing a spray of stone chips and sometimes dislodging an entire chunk of rock.

While they stared, another mechanical thing suddenly arrived, charging out of a side street to join the fray. This one was like a gigantic insect, six legs clattering noisily as it came. Rather than slamming into the stone beast as it first appeared to be about to do, it skidded to a stop nearby and this second Rust cultist leaped into its seat.

“Okay, these guys and their contraptions are old news,” Ruda said above the noise, “but what the fuck is that thing?”

“There’s a lot of fae magic in that,” Juniper said, squinting through the rain. “Like…it’s mostly fae magic.”

“It’s an elemental,” Principia said slowly. “A pavement elemental. Well, that’s a new one, I’ve gotta say.”

“What’s your call, Princess?” Gabriel asked, turning to Ruda. “Taking down the Rust is a safe bet, but we don’t know whose side the elemental’s on, except that they don’t like it. Is this an enemy-of-my-enemy thing, or do we come down on anyone who’s attacking the Rock?”

Ruda frowned at the scene in silence for a bare moment before responding. “Fuck it, we’ve gotta get in, and it looks like they’ve got control of the gates. My parents are in danger right now, we don’t have time to sort this out. Take down the Rust, and unless that thing attacks us help it get the gates—”

A deep, bellowing whinny cut through the storm and her orders, and yet another bulky figure came charging into the square from a side street. This one came from almost straight ahead, originating off the north side of the fortress’s corner and approaching at an angle that would barely skirt the tower and plow head-on into the melee.

It was a horse—an armored horse, though clearly not mechanical, and ridden by an armored figure. That was all they could perceive through the downpour, until it burst alight. Golden wings flared out from the rider, and her sword blazed with pure divine power as she leveled it at the nearest mounted cultist.

“YEEAAAAAH!” Fross screamed, shooting straight upward and erupting in a burst of silver glitter like a firework. “YOU FUCKERS ARE DONE!”


The Rock was a surpassingly resilient bastion, defensible both within and without. Punaji history being rife with coups and revolutions, those occupying its seat of power made no assumptions about their safety. Even in its deepest interior, the Rock’s corridors abounded with blind turns, choke points, doors as hard to break as the outer gates of some lesser fortresses, and more than a handful of booby traps.

It was also, of course, fully staffed both by soldiers and by civilian Punaji who not only carried weapons but didn’t need much prompting to use them. The joke on the wharves was that a Punaji scullery maid was roughly a match for a Sheng infantryman.

Unfortunately for the current royal family, all these defenses were useless against a foe who cleaved through them without even a proper fight.

What unfolded as the handful of Rust swept through the Rock could not have been called a battle. Punaji defenders were swiftly felled by sonic weapons, collapsing in pain and disorientation usually without even squeezing off a shot. The few who managed to fire on their attackers achieved nothing, wand and staff bolts sparking harmlessly against energy shields which were far more durable than the arcane charms with which they were familiar. Nor did the Rust tie down their vastly inferior numbers by trying to seize and hold any ground; they simply neutralized anyone who got in their way and swept on, making equally short work of any physical barriers in their path with blades extended from their machine arms—blades whose edges glowed as if hot, and which sliced through dense wood faster and cleaner than any saw, slowed only slightly when they encountered metal.

The Rust were clearly not here to capture the Rock. They were searching for something. As scattered and disoriented defenders slowly recovered in their passing, they quickly figured out what.

So did the King and Queen, and as such, they were not caught in any corner or defensible position, clearly having learned better from the example of what befell their troops. This communication suggested the presence of tactical scryers, but that did not matter in the end. Ayuvesh had his own means.

He had directed his people to fan through the fortress in a pincer movement as best they could given its maze of corridors, encircling the Rock and closing in. So it was that he finally snared his targets in a long hallway as they attempted to retreat, doubtless to some secret exit from the Rock itself.

Rajakhan and Anjal were accompanied only by their seneschal and two soldiers, and the latter had been neatly felled by sonic shots from the cultist who appeared at the end of the hall down which they fled. The royal couple turned to retreat while Akhatrya tried (fruitlessly) to hamper the attacker, but it was Ayuvesh himself who met them coming the other way. Through the reports of his people scattered through the fortress, he had been tracking them for some time already.

He had left one of his followers behind at the other end of the corridor to ensure they were not interrupted. Finally, he had his moment.

Both King and Queen bared steel at him, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and glaring without a hint of fear.

“Your Majesties,” he said grandly, gesticulating with his metal hand. “I will not waste our time with insincere pleasantries. My people rage unimpeded through your fortress, completely unhindered by the best you can throw against them. You know by now that your weapons will not prevail against me. I have you cornered and at my mercy. This chase, it would appear, is well and truly over.”

“Do what you came to, but spare me your juvenile gloating,” Blackbeard growled. “The Punaji will not—”

“Forgive me,” Ayuvesh said, holding up his other hand, “for interrupting what I’m sure would have been a memorable speech, but once you have learned what I came for I think you will be glad not to have wasted it upon my unworthy self.”

“Speak, then,” Anjal snapped.

“I mistrust words,” he replied with a smile. “Deeds are what matters in life. Action, and the will to take it. And so!”

He tossed aside his screamlance, to their visible surprise. Their expressions of confusion only deepened when Ayuvesh carefully knelt upon the stone floor, and raised both his hands, metal and flesh, in the air. He bowed his head to them, speaking only two more words.

“I surrender.”

 

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13 – 40

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Darius had to help Trissiny tug the warehouse door shut; it opened outward in exactly the wrong direction, and the wind had immediately seized and slammed it against the wall. By the time they had wrestled it closed, both were utterly drenched.

“The Archmage was not kidding about this storm!” he said cheerfully, shaking water from his hands. “Raining sideways is right. So what’re we gonna do, then? Right now all we know is there are renegade cultists, and the Archpope is probably behind ’em.”

“It would seem the most obvious course would be to wait out the weather,” Layla said, opening the unfastened lid of a nearby crate. “It’s not as if we can scout in this… Ah, textiles! Splendid, something you two can towel off with.”

“Get outta there,” Tallie ordered. “That’s somebody’s livelihood you’re screwing around with.”

“Tallie, we’re thieves,” Layla said, giving her a long look. “And we’re already breaking and entering.”

“Nah, Bossypants is right,” Darius interjected. “We’re Eserites, not bandits; don’t take stuff from people we don’t know deserve it. A little water won’t kill us.”

“I’m not sure how long we can afford to wait, either,” Trissiny added. “If what’s happening here is urgent, the storm actually provides excellent cover to begin moving. Punaji like storms, but even most of them won’t be out in the streets in a blow-down like this. By the same token, our enemy may also be acting under cover of the weather.”

“That still leaves us with the problem of gathering info in that racket,” Darius replied, and was punctuated by a helpful thunderclap.

“I think Schwartz has an idea?” Tallie pointed out.

The group had materialized in a half-filled warehouse that was dim almost to the point of darkness, with little natural light thanks to the storm and no lit fairy lamps. A small light had appeared now, though, courtesy of Schwartz, who had evidently begun work as soon as they’d arrived. He had constructed a tiny altar in the cleared space in the middle of the floor, consisting of little more than a piece of stone upon which he had set and now carefully lit a small candle. The group edged closer, leaning forward to stare at the witch’s work without crowding him. Schwartz gave a handful of feathers to Meesie, who set about scampering around the altar laying them down in a careful arrangement forming a kind of spell circle, while Schwartz himself sat back on his haunches, busily scribbling on a narrow strip of parchment with an incongruously modern fountain pen.

“Amazing all the stuff he’s got in those robes,” Darius stage whispered.

“Shh!” Layla elbowed him, then grimaced and rubbed at the wet patch created on her own arm.

Ignoring them for the moment, Schwartz finished his writing just as Meesie completed her feather diagram and scurried back up him to her customary perch on his shoulder. The witch carefully held his parchment over the candle flame, dipping just the corner into the tiny fire.

Immediately, the whole thing went up in a rush of sparks, causing him to jerk his fingers back. The candle was snuffed out by the reaction, the plume of smoke this caused mingling with the ashes of the parchment and rising upward far more energetically than was normal. They all tilted their heads back to watch the small cloud separate into streamers above them, each of which zipped away toward the windows lining the walls just below the ceiling, where they slipped out into the storm through tiny cracks where the panes didn’t fit exactly.

“Well?” Darius said pointedly. “We’re in suspense, here, buddy.”

“A while back I got some really good advice,” Schwartz said, beginning to pick up the feathers and tuck them inside one of his wide sleeves. “A smart old lady told me, among other things, to start equipping myself with aggressive kinds of magic. I’ve always been a bit of a bookworm, you see. More into research than adventure.”

“Surely you jest,” Layla said sweetly, earning annoyed glances from Tallie and Trissiny (and Meesie). Schwartz just continued, unperturbed.

“Well, I got to thinking, and it seems the Avenists are always harping on about war being ninety percent strategy and ten percent actual violence, right?”

“Avenist doctrine doesn’t break it into percents,” Trissiny said dryly, “but the sentiment is close enough.”

“Right. It put me in mind of a time in Vrin Shai where I… Where my group was stuck basically twiddling their thumbs while I tried to gather information from, y’know, oracular sources. The general way fae magic is good for. It took an awful long time and it was terribly imprecise… So! Since then I’ve set about working on that blind spot! That’s the thing that drew me to the fae craft in the first place—my dad was an arcanist, you know. But in witchcraft, it’s all connections and friendships with fairy beings. Power’s about who you know and how much they like you. It rewards being nice.”

“Nice people and good people are two very distinct categories,” Layla said quietly.

“Yeah, I discovered that pretty early on.” Schwartz had finished gathering and putting away his reagents, and now straightened up a little stiffly. “But anyway. In the last few months I’ve been working on getting on good terms with a fairy whom I’ve just called for help. He’s really good with information, if he wants to be. We’re not exactly close, yet, and this is the first time I’ve actually asked him for anything, so I guess we’ll see… But I have a feeling he’ll help us! This is a textbook adventure we’re in, and sylphs love those.”

“Whoah, whoah!” Darius exclaimed backing away. “I’m not the witch here, but aren’t sylphs sort of… Notoriously dangerous?”

“Oh, yes, extremely,” Schwartz replied, while Meesie nodded earnest agreement. “So for heaven’s sake be polite to—”

One of the upper windows shattered, admitting a blast of wind and rain, and a streak of silver feathers and fangs that dived straight for Schwartz with a chilling scream.


Nandi bolted straight up out of her chair, turning to face the staircase up to the battlements. The surrounding Punaji all swiveled to stare in bemusement at the sudden motion, but her squadmates came to their feet in unison, drawing weapons.

“Shahai?” Ephanie demanded.

“The walls are under attack!” Nandi declared, her eyebrows drawing together in concentration. “I hear fighting above—no, not fighting, voices and people falling… They’re coming this way!”

“Who is?” Lieutenant Laghari asked, picking up a battlestaff from the nearest weapons rack. This was a barracks, not an armory, but the troopers present kept their personal armaments close at hand.

“I don’t know, but the wall guards are falling quickly,” Nandi said urgently. “With very little struggle, which means magic at work. People are—they’re in the stairwell!”

Laghari and Ephanie both barked orders at once. Squad One snatched up shields and lances and planted themselves in a defensive line across the center of the room while the Punaji soldiers swiftly tipped up tables to create improvised barricades, grabbing firearms and huddling behind them.

In the resulting tumult, the sound of something bouncing down the stairs was totally obscured, but with everyone’s attention on the entrance, the small object’s arrival was immediately seen. Spinning to fast to be studied closely, it was white and about the size of an apple; the thing ricocheted off the edge of the doorway and tumbled straight for the hastily-erected defenses.

“Bomb!” one of the Punaji shouted, and they all ducked behind their tables while the Legionnaires dropped to their knees, huddling as much behind their shields as possible. Nandi, the only priest among them threw up a wall of golden light across the room in front of them. Stretched so thin, it would assuredly crumble under the first blow, but that was still standard procedure against explosive attack; even a fragile shield could blunt the initial blast enough to save the troops behind it.

And had the thing been a bomb, it might have worked.

It didn’t explode or even flash; only the faintest distortion appeared in the air around it as it arced toward Nandi’s shield, as if it were suddenly putting off great heat. An instant before it struck the wall of light, a thin, piercing whine spiked straight through everyone’s eardrums, completely uninhibited by the shield.

Soldiers collapsed, most crying out and several vomiting, behind their wooden barriers. Two staves were accidentally discharged, the ordinarily deafening sound of lightning in an enclosed space going unnoticed around the noise bearing everyone to the ground.

The Legionnaires fared no better, their shield wall collapsing instantly. Nandi screamed in anguish, dropping her lance and shield to pitch over backward, clutching at her head. Everyone in the room was brought down by sheer pain. The few who bore up against it well enough to retain some spine had little better luck. Laghari and Ephanie both caught themselves before falling completely prone, and tried to call for order, immediately discovering that their voices were completely silent, even to themselves. Nothing could be heard except the excruciating whine.

In addition to the pain, it caused disorientation and nausea that made several of the victims present empty their stomachs and prevented any of them from so much as straightening up. Ephanie tried and staggered drunkenly, barely catching herself on the edge of the nearest table.

Farah keeled over backward, then rolled on top of Nandi and took her hands away from her own head to help cover the elf’s ears; Nandi had curled herself into a ball and was twitching with silent sobs. Merry, losing her lance, had got her hands on someone’s dropped battlestaff and managed to flop down atop her own shield with the weapon aiming in the general direction of the door. The dizziness was not lessened by being stretched out on the floor, and it was all she could do to line up a shot at that general end of the room.

At the first flicker of movement she fired, the lightning bolt seeming soundless to them and blasting a futile crater in the wall a full yard distant from the door itself. All she accomplished was to warn the person coming in.

None of them were coherent enough to get a close look at the object which peeked around the corner at about chest height before it fired in Merry’s general direction.


They were not quite fast enough to prevent an alarm from sounding. Quickly silenced as it was, the damage was done, and soldiers upon the upper towers of the Rock itself leveled staves and opened fire upon the cyborgs emerging from the north gatehouse.

Ayuvesh strode, unconcerned, out into the rain pounding the courtyard. Lightning flashed, gouging rents in the flagstones and sparking harmlessly against his personal shield and those of his comrades. Let them burn through their power crystals; these deflectors were of a make like nothing the Punaji had ever seen. If they were expecting to wear them down with continuous fire as one could a standard arcane shield charm, they would be frustrated.

The counter-fire did not last long, anyway, as each sparking battlestaff only presented a target. Members of the Order took aim with blasters and the air was filled with the shrill whine of the sonic weapons—harmless to their wielders, thanks to enhancements he had been certain to make to all of their installed machine systems. The effect of sonic blasters would be inhibited by the solid stone walls of the Rock, but battlements and arrow loops would offer little protection from sound waves. One by one, the firing staves halted as their owners were incapacitated.

Fortunate that his foresight had demanded they all install the protection against sonics before the Infinite Elixir had suddenly dried up, forcing him to make this extremely risky gambit. But no, he corrected himself inwardly, there was no fortune. There was only will, and his was stronger.

“South gatehouse is contained,” one of his comrades reported, the voice sounding in Ayuvesh’s artificial ear. “They actually got into fighting position, but didn’t stand up to the blasters.”

“Don’t get careless,” another warned. “There’ll be more troops below, out of range of the weapons.”

Ayuvesh turned to face Shankri, and tilted his head back toward the southern gatehouse. “Try to get inside from the ground floor and sweep upward with your group; meet in the middle. You mustn’t let them secure a position inside the gatehouse.”

“Yes, Leader,” she replied, bowing, then turned and dashed for the small door at the side. The four assigned to accompany her, having heard, followed without comment, all carrying sonic blasters.

Of all the Order present, only Ayuvesh himself was without one.

“Come,” he ordered, striding forward toward the inner gates of the Rock itself. “We must not give them time to organize.”

Staff fire had completely ceased by then; at his side, Gupter switched his arm attachment from a standard hand to a cutting tool, against which the fortress door would hold for seconds at the most.

“Spread out when we are inside,” Ayuvesh ordered. “Fan as widely as you can, neutralize everyone you see. No looting, and do not harm fallen foes. Keep moving through the fortress in small groups and stay in touch. Notify me at once when you find the King. Only then will we be able to end this.”

It was one thing for a person to test his will against the universe itself. Tonight, the will of the Infinite Order would come against that of a king and a nation.

And what would be, would be.


“Wait, wait, wait!” Schwartz cried shrilly—to Trissiny, who had burst alight with a golden glow and whipped out her sword. He didn’t seem at all perturbed about the great sinuous beast which had coiled itself around him. While she had taken a threatening step forward, the other apprentices had judiciously retreated. Atop Schwartz’s head, Meesie mimicked his posture, frantically holding up her tiny palms and squeaking at Trissiny. “It’s all right! He’s a friend! Everything’s fine.”

“You’re…sure,” she said warily, but lowered her sword. Schwartz was fully encased in serpentine coils, but not constricted—and in fact, as she took a careful step back, the sylph continued moving, loosening his encirclement to give Schwartz more space and fixing a stare on the paladin.

“I’m quite sure, trust me. That was a heck of an entrance, Rad,” he added, the sylph having unwound himself to a position bringing his head adjacent to Schwartz’s. “You scared everybody half to death.”

“Mmm. Just half? All is well, then.” The voice might have been human, albeit rather high-pitched for a male.

“Everyone, this is my friend, Aradeus the Noble.” Schwartz actually reached out to pat the sylph’s neck, smiling reassuringly. “Rad, these are my other friends. Layla and Darius Sakhavenid, Tallie… I’m sorry, I don’t know your last name.”

“That’s how I like it,” she replied warily, eyes still on the sylph.

“And, of course, Trissiny Avelea, the Hand of Avei.”

“An honor!” Aradeus gracefully slid out from around Schwartz, spread his wings, and executed a strangely courtly bow, dipping his head and tucking one foot momentarily behind the other.

He was the strangest combination of snake, bird, and dog in appearance. Fully twelve feet long from nose to tail, his whole body was sinuous and lean, covered in silvery fur which ruffled constantly, more than the wind blowing in from the window he’d broken could account for. His wings were feathered, the plumes oddly crystalline in appearance, and banded in bright colors like a macaws; directly below them he had two long, stork-like legs, ending in huge, glittering talons. The sylph’s head looked canine, though tipped with two birdlike nostrils instead of a wet little nose, and he had blade-shaped ears twice the length of his skull.

Aradeus smiled at them, which may have been intended as a pleasant expression. His long rows of needle-sharp silver teeth just made it unnerving.

“Let’s see,” the sylph mused, turning and stepping over toward Layla with a mincing gait that suited a wading bird. He paused when Darius edged in front of her, and folded his wings back along his sinuous body. “Mmm, young nobles. Of House Sakhavenid! You are a long way from home.”

“You’re aware of our House?” Layla asked in surprise, peeking around Darius’s shoulder.

“Not until just now.” Aradeus seemed to have lost interest already, turning and approaching Tallie, who held her ground. For the most part he kept his neck—or at least the long portion of his body between his wings and head—arched upright to bring his eyes to about human level, but he lowered it now to sniff at her midsection.

“Excuse you?” she exclaimed.

“Now, Tallie,” Schwartz said nervously.

“Mmmm. Circus folk. An acrobat? How excellent!” Aradeus straightened up to grin at her. “I like performers. Such a sense of fun!”

“Well, thanks, I guess…”

The sylph had moved on by then. Trissiny carefully slid her sword back into its sheath, watching quizzically as Aradeus stepped over and sniffed all up and down her form.

“Find what you were looking for?” she finally asked after the third round of this.

“Mmm, how fascinating!” He straightened again, showing her all his teeth. “Avenist, Eserite, human, elf. And what diverse friends you have! Avei is branching out, it seems. Herschel, you didn’t tell me you—” Twisting his head around to look at Schwartz, he suddenly broke off. “Oh. Oh, I see. You don’t know, yet.”

“Omnu’s balls,” Darius interjected. “Is there something else you need to tell us, Trissiny?”

“No, no, no secrets,” Aradeus assured him, twisting his neck fully into a position that looked very uncomfortable. “She doesn’t know yet, either. Not my place to say, you’ll find out in time, no doubt. Or perhaps not. Mmmm. And you call me here without an offering, Herschel? Presumptuous.” The sylph straightened his neck, turning to prance back toward Schwartz and lowering his head as he came. “You have always been so well-mannered, too.”

Meesie sat upright in Schwartz’s hair, waving and squeaking brightly. Aradeus paused in his approach to grin up at her.

“Hey, there, cutie. I missed you, too.”

“I am sorry to call so abruptly, Rad,” Schwartz said, himself wearing a grin now. Oddly enough, in the presence of one of the most infamously unpredictable and violent types of fairy, he seemed more at ease than ever. “But I thought you might get a kick out of this, and we could definitely use your help. The short version is we’re chasing renegades from various cults of the Universal Church, and all we know is they’re attacking Puna Dara. Which would be interesting enough on its own, but right now the city’s being pounded by a sudden storm sent specifically by Naphthene. What do you think?” His grin widened. “Sound like fun?”

“Mmmmmmmmmm.” Aradeus emitted a long hum, tilting his head and twitching both his ears. Though apparently rigid along their length, they swiveled where they attached to the skull, and he used them as expressively as a horse. “It’s a very good storm. Hers are always the best ones. Interesting, I’ll give you that. It’s not running from Athan’Khar monsters, but you do keep yourself entertained, don’t you?”

“You actually did that?” Darius scoffed.

Schwartz shrugged and rolled his eyes heavenward. “Why doesn’t anyone believe me about that?”

“Mmm. I will not fight, here, I think,” Aradeus mused. Turning away from Schwartz, he began pacing in a circle, head upraised, sniffing the air steadily as he went. “There is no evil here…just humans struggling over human concerns. Not my business. There was a succubus, quite recently. She’s gone, though. Alas, no evil is left to chase.”

“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” Layla said. “The last thing we need to deal with is a succubus.”

“Oh, but they’re such fun!” the sylph crooned, swiveling his head to grin directly at her. “So clever! Excellent hunting.”

“And it’s not necessarily good that she’s gone,” Trissiny added, frowning. “If a Vanislaad has been here and left, that usually means they’ve accomplished whatever they were trying to do. Which is always trouble of the worst kind.”

“Oh, yes!” Aradeus turned his eyes on her, grinning widely. “Oh, yes. Mmmm. Yes, I don’t mind helping you, this is a most entertaining hunt. There are no Pantheon cultists here for you to chase, oh no. Very different cultists, men and women of machine and ancient lore. They do not answer to your enemy, but have been manipulated by him. Encouraged, and used. The succubus let them into the palace, the Rock. Even now, they close upon the Crown.” He raised his head, sniffing the air again. “Mmmm. A most curious battle. They fight with…sound, yes. Weapons that strike the ear. Painful, but not lethal. A strangely bloodless coup. The Punaji have no defense against this.”

“Shit fire,” Darius whispered.

“How can you tell all this?” Tallie demanded.

“Sylphs can smell anything,” Schwartz said, stepping up and patting Aradeus on the back of the neck. Humming softly in pleasure, the sylph arched into the touch, and the witch ruffled his fur affectionately. “It’s not like elves, who just have more acute senses. Aradeus can scent whatever the wind has witnessed. If he says he smells sound weapons, then that’s what it is.”

“This succubus,” Trissiny said, narrowing her eyes. “Does she work for the Archpope?”

“For now.” Aradeus gave her a small grin, the faint light glittering along his silver teeth. “Under duress, of course. A succubus, elves…a dragon. What an interesting Archpope, this one. Mmm. Strange company, for such as him to keep.”

“Well, that answers the question of timing, anyway,” Trissiny stated, turning to the others. “The King is under attack now. We have to move.”

“How?” Layla asked skeptically. “How are we going to fight sound-based weapons that apparently took out the whole Punaji army?”

“You’re not a soldier,” Tallie said. “Don’t try to think like one. You’re a thief. Weapons are no use if they never even get pointed at you. We’ve got a paladin and a witch to draw their attention. We operate best in the shadows.”

“Okay,” Trissiny said, nodding. “I like it so far. What’s your idea, Tallie?”

Suddenly put on the spot, Tallie froze for a moment. Just a moment, though, then she swallowed. “Uh, well… Okay. What is it we need to accomplish, here? We’re saving the Punaji government, right?”

“That seems more or less the sum of it,” Schwartz agreed. “We came here to oppose whatever Justinian has set in motion. If he wants Rajakhan to fall, we want him to win.”

“Right. Then… There’s the military solution, where we take out the people attacking them.”

“Unlikely,” Aradeus commented. “Mmmm. Forty- three of them, spreading through the palace. Humans augmented with machine parts, carrying shields and weapons of ancient design. Mmm. Hershel and Trissiny, either, are more than a match for a handful at a time. But hunting them down would take you too long. And if you got them all to gather… Even a Hand of Avei might be pressed.”

“You are a very helpful fairy,” Tallie told him.

“Yes, I am. And you are a very interesting human!”

“Thanks, I try. Well, that leaves the other solution: we get the King out of the palace, somehow. Finding and extracting someone isn’t exactly a thiefly skill, but it’s closer to up our alley.”

“There is more help coming,” Aradeus said suddenly, raising his nose to the air again and inhaling. “Mmm… Yes. Help. Good help… Enough to crush the metal men!”

Tallie threw up her hands. “Okay, never mind! Back to Plan A, I guess.”

“No, wait a moment,” Trissiny said slowly. “Aradeus, do the invaders have control of the fortress gates?”

“Mmm, well spotted. Yes, they have. One they used to enter, the other they overtook. Stopping the soldiers inside from helping their king, mmm.”

“How many gates are there?” Layla asked.

“Two,” said Trissiny, “at right angles, flanking the western corner tower.”

“I thought you’d never been here before,” said Darius, frowning at her.

“I haven’t, but the Rock is one of the most impregnable fortresses on this continent; you’d better believe they made me study it back in Viridill. Tallie’s plan is still our best bet. We hit the gates; Schwartz and I will draw their attention while you get the doors open.”

“How.” Tallie’s voice dripped with so much skepticism it was barely a question.

Trissiny actually grinned at her. “Each gatehouse has a side door, just the kind of thing a thief can breach. I’ll walk you through it on the way.”

“Mmmm. They entered through the north gatehouse,” Aradeus added, again sniffing the air. “Mm. Yes. That door is not secured…yet. These are not military people, nor planning to hold the fortress; they are after the King. Not expecting to be attacked from behind, and overconfident in their weapons. You can get in the same way they did.”

“And once you’ve opened the gates,” Trissiny said, nodding, “the rest of these reinforcements will aid us in taking back the fortress. Who, exactly, is coming?” she added, turning to Aradeus.

“Mmmm, that is the best part,” he said, giving her a huge grin. “People you know… Know very well. But you will need to hold that gate open for them, Trissiny, Hand of Avei. Mmm, yes. They are going to be delayed.”


The appeared in a harbor warehouse, with the storm pounding against its walls and the windows rattling under its fury. The Avatar had teleported them so abruptly the group lost seconds to sheer disorientation. Then, they reflexively clustered together, even Fross darting to hover above the center of their formation.

They were not alone.

This particular warehouse was clearly serving as a living space; there were rows of beds and other furniture marking of a sleeping area to one side, as well as other sections delineated by cheap wooden dividers or simply the furniture within to indicate its purpose. A makeshift kitchen and armory were apparent at a glance, but the group didn’t bother to study the rest in more detail, being more concerned with the people present.

The warehouse was packed with people sheltering from the storm. A surprising number of them were armed, with swords, wands and staves. Milady, Principia, and the students landed right in the center of the space, directly in front of a makeshift dais made by stacked crates, upon which a man had been clearly in the middle of giving a speech. He gaped at them, arms still upraised in an interrupted gesticulation.

After a shocked moment, every weapon in the place was pointed at them.

“Identify yourselves!” the man on the platform finally commanded, regathering his poise.

“Uh…how ’bout you first?” Gabriel suggested.

“This is our home, and you are the intruders, here.” The speaker was regaining equilibrium by the moment, and now leveled a finger at them dramatically. “You trespass upon the domain of the Infinite Order!”

A short silence fell.

“You cannot be serious,” Milady finally said with a sigh.

“So help me,” Ruda growled, “I am going to find a way to get back down there and kill that fucking purple glowshroom.”

 

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13 – 36

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The Wizards’ Guild occupied a broad tower, one of the tallest structures in Tiraas, situated in (oddly enough) the financial district. It was close enough to the Imperial Casino that it hadn’t taken them long to get here on foot; having Trissiny in full armor at the head of the group had made the trip considerably faster, as nobody wanted to impede the Hand of Avei, especially when she was moving at a brisk stride and wearing a scowl.

Now, as the group reached the top of the long staircase to the entrance, they finally slowed. It had been a significant climb; the actual door was on the third floor, on a wide balcony suspended above the base of the stairs, which wrapped all the way around the tower.

“Just excessive, is what it is,” Schwartz huffed once they eventually reached the entrance. “Wizards, always having to make a spectacle…”

“Shh,” Tallie muttered, nudging him. “I think they can hear you.”

Flanking the broad doors were two golems made of brass and crystal engraved with glowing arcane runes. The things were eight feet tall, proportioned not unlike gorillas, and deliberately turned their small heads to track the visitors’ movement.

“It’s all right,” Schwartz said, despite his own suddenly worried expression. “They can’t really be…that is, weaponized golems are illegal in the Empire, surely…”

Trissiny had paused to glance back and make sure everyone was still present, and gave him an encouraging little smile before stepping forward again. She strode right up to the doors, paying the towering golems no mind.

At her approach, one of them reached across and pulled one of the doors open. The other bowed politely.

“Wow,” Darius said as they filed past, into the tower. “Wonder if they would’ve done that for us?”

“Probably not for me,” Schwartz murmured, reaching up to pat Meesie for comfort, but fell silent despite the questioning looks Layla and Tallie gave him.

They had arrived in a sizable foyer with marble floors and columns, the walls paneled in mahogany—and marred by erratic chips and old scorch marks. A once-expensive but now slightly battered desk sat immediately to the right of the door, with a glowing contraption perched on one corner which seemed to consist of levitating gears and pulleys that turned endlessly around without actually touching one another. Benches padded in shabby red velvet lined the wall on the opposite side.

There was a constant soft rustle of paper from books, scrolls, and individual sheets which zipped back and forth overhead, passing in and out of small tubes which extended from the walls near the ceiling.

“Good afternoon,” said the supercilious-looking man behind the desk, raising his eyebrows at them. “Welcome to the Honorable Guild of Wizards. May I help you?”

“Yes, please,” Trissiny said crisply. “I apologize for the short notice, but we need to commission a teleportation for five people to Puna Dara.”

“Five people and one class two fire elemental,” Schwartz added, leaning around her and raising one finger. Meesie squeaked in affirmation, nodding. He met Trissiny’s questioning look with an apologetic shrug. “Sorry to cut in, but details like that are relevant in teleportation.”

“Quite so,” agreed the man behind the desk. Though it would not have seemed possible moments ago, his eyebrows had somehow ascended further. He studied them each in turn, eyes lingering on Trissiny’s armor and Schwartz’s green robes; the two of them made a surprising contrast to the three casually-dressed apprentice thieves. “That is some considerable distance… Forgive me, but have you made arrangements ahead of time for this?”

“I’m afraid not,” Trissiny replied. “This is an emergency.”

“I see. That is difficult…” He pursed his lips momentarily, then nodded. “I will see what I can arrange. Please excuse me briefly, General Avelea. You and your companions may wait here.”

With no further ado, the man turned and strode away at a rapid pace, departing the foyer into the large chamber beyond and turning the corner out of sight. Past the columns around which he had disappeared was a cathedral-like round space, far too large to have fit inside the tower they had just climbed all the way around to get in here.

Schwartz blew out a short breath. “Well! I hope me being along isn’t going to make this difficult…”

“Why the hell would it?” Darius asked bluntly. “I mean, you’re just about the nicest guy we know.”

“Anymore,” Tallie whispered.

Everyone fell silent. Layla closed her eyes.

After a moment Schwartz cleared his throat. “Ah, yes, well, it’s a question of…history. I, ah, might not have worn the, uh, official robes of my cult had I known this day would bring me to the Wizards’ Guild.”

“Bad blood, there?” Tallie asked. Her tone was barely interested, but Schwartz nodded, obviously glad for the excuse to keep talking.

“It all goes back to the Enchanter Wars. You know how that started, of course.”

She frowned slightly at that, turning to him with more focus. “The Enchanter Wars? Sure. The Empire bombed Athan’Khar with the Enchanter’s Bane, half the provinces seceded in protest, the Emperor was dethroned, House Tirasian took over, Horsebutt the Enemy invaded and Sarsamon united the rebel provinces again to repel the Stalweiss. Who went on to settle the Great Plains and that’s why the Empire extends all the way to the Golden Sea now. Just ‘cos I’m not a noble or a paladin doesn’t mean I dunno basic history.”

“Nobody’s saying that, Tallie,” Darius said with a sigh. “Nobody here has ever said that to you. We’re all hurting, here. Don’t take it out on Schwartz.”

She lowered her eyes. “Right. Yeah. Sorry.”

He smiled, and patted her gently on the shoulder. Meesie scampered down his arm to do the same, which earned a small grin from Tallie.

“I think he was talking about Magnan. Right?” Trissiny had stepped a bit away from the group, staring ahead in the direction the greeter had gone, but now turned back to the rest of them.

“Right, yes,” Schwartz said, nodding. “Magnan the Enchanter, the last Hand of Salyrene. The whole shebang was basically his fault. He built the Bane, he pressured the Emperor to use it… And he also caused the religious war that made all the rest of it possible.”

“Religious war?” Tallie frowned again. “Okay, I’ll admit I hadn’t heard about that one. Nobles, paladins? Fill me in?”

“Well, the provinces didn’t just up and secede,” said Layla. “Viridill did, and the Silver Legions crushed the Imperial forces sent to retake it. The Sisterhood provided military support to other rebel groups, the cult of Vesk launched a nationwide campaign of propaganda to encourage revolt, and the Thieves’ Guild started selectively sabotaging and assassinating Imperial interests to weaken the regime. The cults were very much involved in the Enchanter Wars.”

“What’d Magnus have to do with that?”

“Magnan.” Trissiny’s voice was soft, and tired. “He was the most brilliant wizard of his age, and also a dangerously unstable man. He was obsessed with fae magic and fairies, thought the whole business was inhuman, somehow, and should be prohibited. Eventually he amassed so much political influence in the Empire and the Universal Church that he got the Emerald College nullified and expelled from Salyrene’s cult, and got the Empire to ban fae magic entirely. That caused a schism within the Collegium, and within the Church. The Colleges all took sides, and the cults took sides. Avei, Eserion and Vesk sided with the witches, which put them against the Empire.”

“Actually it wasn’t college against college, in my cult,” Schwartz added, “which is how it all comes back to the original question. Magnan listened too much to his sycophants and overestimated how much support he had. When he started hunting down witches, most of the Sapphire College itself turned on him. It was…well, it was a huge mess, during the Wars and for a while after. It’s why there are secular traditions of magical study, now, and why the numbers and influence of the Collegium has never fully recovered. Also why Salyrene never called another Hand. A lot of witches and mages both felt she had betrayed or failed us, and turned away from the faith. The mages who just wanted to continue their research without the goddess’s oversight left this continent to found Syralon, while…”

“While those who fought back against Magnan went on to found the Wizards’ Guild, right here in Tiraas, beholden to no god but the mortal mind.”

All of them straightened and turned to face the speaker, who approached them briskly from the great open chamber beyond, flanked by the man from behind the desk and half a dozen other people. All of them wore suits, of various degrees of stylishness, formality, and cleanliness; the woman in the center, who had addressed them, was by far the best-dressed, in a clearly tailored black suit with a bolo tie inset with a luminous blue gem. She was old enough that her narrow face was deeply lined, her short hair entirely white, but she moved and spoke with the vigor of a much younger woman.

“We still have old tensions with the Salyrites, yes,” she said, coming to a stop and smiling wryly, “but a witch of the Emerald College, of all people, will find welcome here. I am Fareena Raasvedh, Archmage of the Guild, and it seems I am suddenly transported to a past age! Here there’s a Hand of Avei on my doorstep, asking for magical assistance for herself and her adventuring party.”

“Holy shit, she’s right,” Darius muttered. “We’re an adventuring party. Does anybody else feel like we’ve suddenly switched to a whole different type of story?”

“Shut up, you oaf,” Layla hissed. “Don’t banter in front of the Archmage!”

“I realize this is asking a lot,” Trissiny said to Raasvedh. “Especially on such short notice. We need to get to Puna Dara as quickly as possible, and teleportation is by far the quickest way; there isn’t even a Rail line any closer than Desolation. I’m afraid I don’t have on me the kind of funds this commission would normally require, but the Sisterhood will of course compensate—”

“Now, that we don’t even need to discuss,” Archmage Raasvedh said with a grin, holding up a hand. “It would be an absolute honor to help the Hand of Avei in smiting whatever thing it is you’re hunting. Just because we’re agnostics around here doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what you do for the world.”

“No, just a moment,” said one of the wizards accompanying her, a man only a few years younger with a long beard and bushy eyebrows, which now lowered in a frown. “Five people, to Puna Dara? That’s a substantial commission, Fareena, you can’t just—”

“My gods in bloomers, Tanaquin, really?” the Archmage exclaimed, turning a scathing look on him. “If your licorice and tobacco budget is so strained, I will personally pay you for your labors. Anybody else?”

“Yo!” The youngest woman in the group, whose dress shirt was buttoned askew and lacked a tie, raised a hand. “If you’re paying out of your own pocket—”

“Shut up, Lessa,” Raasvedh grunted, turning her back on them. “I am pretty curious about all this, General. What’s going on in Puna Dara that’s so urgent? And you are, after all, traveling with a Salyrite. It seems like it would be easier to have Collegium mages ‘port you. They’re almost obligated to aid a paladin without charge, are they not?”

Trissiny hesitated, glancing back at the others. “It’s…a long story. I suppose you’re aware of the ongoing crackdown of Universal Church loyalists being rounded up by the government and their cults?”

“Mm.” Raasvedh’s lips curled up in a catlike expression. “I don’t know if you’ve read Stalweiss philosophy, General Avelea, but I have been following the news and meditating upon the concept of schadenfreude. Heard of it?”

“I was not aware Stalweiss philosophy was even a thing,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “Those are the people we’ve been dealing with, and they were doing a lot worse than just thinking the Archpope has some good ideas.”

“Obviously, or the government wouldn’t be involved. Beyond vague whispers of treason, I’ve not heard what, specifically, these alleged conspirators are up to.”

“We’ve had at least one Salyrite hounding us already,” Trissiny said bluntly. “Possibly more. A friend of ours was murdered this morning by members of my own Sisterhood. My faith in the faithful is very thin right now. Until everyone’s house has been thoroughly cleaned, I’m not inclined to trust any of the cults.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” the Archmage said, her expression immediately sobering. The only mage with her who wore a hat immediately removed it respectfully; the messy young woman at the edge of the group looked like she might actually cry. “Not to pry, but you think these people are up to something else in Puna Dara?”

“I think most of these people are patsies who have been abandoned now that they’re no longer useful,” Trissiny replied. “But the person behind them is up to something in Puna Dara.”

“Say no more,” Raasvedh said, nodding sharply. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have work to do. General, if you and your friends will step right this way? The main chamber here is what we use for mass teleports.”

They followed her out of the foyer into the broad, domed space beyond. The floor was engraved with concentric rings, each elaborately marked by runes, making multiple spell circles of varying size and purpose. More enchanted equipment was positioned around the edges of the space, some of it extending overhead toward the middle of the chamber; much of this was immediately identifiable as scrying devices, consisting of mirrors, telescopes, and constantly-changing maps. It probably would have taken a wizard to understand the purpose of all the various banks of crystals, glass, wire and metal. Or perhaps a witch, to judge by the way Schwartz avidly stared around at everything.

Despite the chamber being broader than the tower itself, arched doorways opened off it in multiple directions, leading to halls which extended into the distance beyond sight, lined with more doors. Several wizards passed in and out of these, though as the Archmage and her companions took up positions around the circle and scrying equipment, they hurriedly got out of the way. Several lingered in the doorways to watch, eyeing Trissiny in particular and whispering to each other. To judge by what they wore, the Wizards’ Guild had a most peculiar dress code. Everyone wore suits, but the majority were shabby, out of style, and markedly disheveled.

The five of them clustered not far into the room, trying not to feel awkward as they were abruptly being ignored. Schwartz craned his neck about, lips moving soundlessly as he studied the machinery and whispered to himself, but the rest were left to just…stand.

“I get what you mean, Darius,” Tallie muttered. “Man, all this magic shit is over my head…”

“Apologies, the Archmage is a very…task-oriented person,” said the sharply-dressed man who had greeted them at the door with a faint smile. He had just finished activating a bank of power crystals next to a huge scrying mirror at which two of his colleagues were already working. “Your request requires some considerable planning. We have more than sufficient power reserves here that a five-person teleportation across the continent will not be a hardship, but this demands absolutely precise data before we act. In any kind of teleportation, precision is paramount. The consequences of the slightest mistake are…exceedingly ugly.”

“Uh, yes,” Darius said emphatically, nodding. “I’m in favor of whatever doesn’t get us turned into soup or stuck halfway through a wall.”

“The soup thing is practically unheard of,” the man replied with a faint smirk, turning to join his associates at the mirror.

“Practically?” Layla said shrilly.

“A little wizards’ humor,” Schwartz said, patting her lightly on the back. “Really, I dunno what it is about arcane magic, but they’re more macabre even than the warlocks. Anyway, he’s right, stuff like that hardly ever happens. Most teleportation accidents involve re-materialization errors that leave pieces out or accidentally integrate their subject with an unforeseen object in the landing area. A complete physical breakdown like he described can really only occur if the data stream is interrupted by a dimensional rift of some kind—a chaos event, or hellgate, or accidental intersection with a shadow-jump in progress. The odds of that—”

“Schwartz, man, I love you,” Darius said seriously, “but shut the hell up. Right now.”

Layla had squeezed her eyes shut and appeared to be whispering to herself.

“Ah…sorry. I was just trying to be reassuring. The point is, any such thing is extraordinarily unlikely! That’s the reason for all this preparatory work they are doing. I mean, with magic, nothing is truly impossible, but only in the rarest circumstances does a standard teleport result in—”

“Schwartz!”

“Hey.” In contrast to the unfolding argument, Tallie’s voice was almost imperceptibly soft. She had edged away from the others to where Trissiny was standing a little distant from the group, staring into space, and nudged her armored side with an elbow. “I see you there, brooding. Don’t do that, your face’ll freeze that way.”

Trissiny sighed softly, not looking at her. “Sorry.”

Tallie tilted her head slightly, studying the other girl’s face in profile. “You don’t need to apologize to me.”

“I didn’t just mean—”

“I know, Jas, I’m not an idiot.” She sighed and folded her arms, now looking to the side. “Look, I’m past the point where I might have been mad at you keeping secrets. We’ve all had…more important stuff to feel, today. Anyway, nothing’s really changed. You were always right, it was none of my business, and I definitely see why you kept it to yourself.” She cracked a grin, turning to look at the paladin again. “Hell, if anything I feel a little better. Secrets mostly bug me because I’m afflicted with insatiable curiosity; it’s a challenge, anything I don’t know. Sort of like…I needed to prove I wasn’t stupid by figuring out the truth. Well, ‘secret Hand of freakin’ Avei’ is one I was just never gonna guess. Honestly, how could I? So, not my fault.”

There was silence for a moment before Trissiny replied. “You’re right, personal business is just that. That isn’t what I meant. Everything that happened today is my fault, and we both know it.”

“Bullshit.” Her voice was loud enough to cut off the bickering going off a few feet away. Tallie stepped closer, Trissiny turning to face her in surprise. “What, you get your shiny armor and your high horse back and suddenly you think you get to be responsible for all of us? No, uh uh. With all due respect, General, screw you. We make our choices and we face the consequences, all of us. I am not a side character in someone else’s story, not even yours.”

“I could have ended that at any time,” Trissiny replied, still quietly. “Or before it got to that point. It was me keeping secrets that—”

“You know what, if I thought you were to blame, I’d blame you. You know damn well I would. Jas—Trissiny, I killed Ross.”

“What?!” Trissiny took a step toward her, clearly aghast. “Tallie, no—”

She reached out, but Tallie stepped back out of range. “Come on, you were there! That priestess shot him by accident. Ross was right: she wasn’t a murderer, didn’t have that in her. She was trying to psych herself up to do it while he was trying to psych her down, and he was a lot more persuasive. But then I stood up, which made the soldier yell, which made her jump and squeeze the clicker. Me. I did it.”

“Tallie,” Trissiny said miserably. Behind Tallie, the others stared in silence.

“And you bet your shiny ass I will spend a lot of nights crying over that,” Tallie said flatly, her eyes already shining with moisture. “There’s no way not to feel what you feel. But you know what? I am not going to brood, or wallow. It was a fucked up situation. We made mistakes, all of us, and it went horribly wrong. But goddamn it, we tried. We did our best. Ross deserves better than for any of us to just shrivel up. Mistakes are to be learned from, not curled up around. And that goes for you too, Ms. Fancy Paladin. Yeah, I believe you fucked up, you probably could have done something different, maybe better. So don’t do that next time. But you loved Ross just as much as any of us and you didn’t mean for this to happen.”

She stepped forward again, and held out her hand.

“No fucking brooding, Jasmine. For Ross’s sake. We learn, and we’ll do better next time. We’re not gonna wallow like losers. If you can’t do that on your own, then make it a pact between us. Shake on it.”

Trissiny stared, her own eyes bright. After a moment, though, she reached out and clasped Tallie’s open hand with her own.

“…a pact, then. You’re right, Tallie, mistakes are to be learned from. When’d you get to be so much wiser than me?”

“Pff, don’t act like that’s new.” Despite the tears glittering in her eyes, Tallie cracked a grin. “It’s called an upbringing. I love you guys, but you’re a bunch of fucking rubes, always have been.”

“Ahem?”

They all turned to find Archmage Raasvedh standing two yards away, hands folded before her.

“Sorry to interrupt, but there is a slight problem.”

“A problem?” Trissiny hastily scrubbed a hand across her eyes, not seeming bothered by the metal-plated gauntlet. Tallie, though, winced slightly, flexing the fingers she had recently squeezed. “How slight?”

“There appears to be a massive storm in Puna Dara right now,” Raasvedh reported. “This makes our business far more complicated. Ordinarily you would want to be teleported to an open space, which would be a matter of picking any unoccupied one which would fit the needs of your insertion. However, this is a ‘raining sideways’ kind of storm. Water passing through the space is a catastrophic thing to materialize into, and that doesn’t even account for flying debris. The wind itself, even if it was bone-dry… Point being, these are the worst possible conditions to ‘port into.”

“Wait…does that mean you can’t do it?” Darius asked, frowning.

Raasvedh shook her head. “Merely that it’s a little more complicated. We’re going to have to scry for a suitable indoor space. In Puna Dara, that’ll most likely mean a dockside warehouse. And that means trespass via magic, which is a big enough offense in the Empire. I don’t know the actual laws offhand, but the Punaji in general are very big on both privacy and business.”

“The warning is appreciated,” Trissiny said, inclining her head politely. “We will take extra care not to disrupt anything when we arrive.”

“Well, that’s great and all,” Raasvedh said dryly, “but with my Guild being responsible for doing this, we have liability.”

“Ah. Yes, of course. As it happens, Princess Zaruda is a very close friend of mine. If anyone’s feathers are ruffled, I’m sure we’ll be able to smooth it over. And if not, I will personally assume all responsibility.”

“Fair enough,” said the Archmage with a little smile. “That’s all I needed to hear. There’s another thing you ought to know: this storm isn’t natural.”

Trissiny frowned. “Not natural? How?”

“It doesn’t match with the surrounding weather patterns, which means it was summoned very abruptly and will also blow itself out pretty fast. But we checked the vicinity and found a colossal amount of unfocused divine residue out to sea which explains where it came from. This particular storm is an act of the gods. Or, far more likely, a god in particular: Naphthene.”

“Huh,” Darius grunted. “Any idea why she’d hit Puna Dara with a storm?”

“There is absolutely no telling,” Schwartz said, shrugging. “Naphthene hasn’t even got priests, and she’s rather notoriously…touchy. She just does things like this sometimes. It could be something as simple as somebody spilling chum on one of her harbor shrines. It’s not likely to be anything to do with us,” he added, turning to address Trissiny.

“Is the origin of the storm relevant to your calculations for the teleport?” Trissiny asked the Archmage.

“It won’t make a difference what caused the weather,” Raasvedh said with a grin. “But you’re charging into the place after rebel cultists; it sounded like the kind of detail you’d want to know, going in.”

“Quite right. Thank you for informing us.”

“That reminds me, though,” Raasvedh said thoughtfully. “You know Arachne Tellwyrn quite well, don’t you, General?”

Trissiny hesitated. “I…doubt whether anyone knows Tellwyrn well. I see her often enough, though.”

“Well, that’ll do. There is a little favor you could do for me, if you are so inclined.”

“Oh?” Trissiny’s tone was openly wary, but Raasvedh just grinned more broadly.

“I’m a tremendous fan. If you could get me her autograph, that would be fantastic.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said in relief. “Well… That’s the kind of request that makes her curse and start throwing fireballs, but it’s not like I haven’t survived worse. I’ll definitely ask her; it’s the least I can do. In fact, if you’re interested, I might be able to arrange for you to meet her.”

“Oh, gods, no. I’m a fan because we’re far too similar in temperament; one of us would end up dead.”

“That would be you, Archmage,” Lessa called cheerfully from across the room. “Tellwyrn has beat up Zanzayed the Blue with her bare hands at least twice!”

“I’m gonna polymorph that girl into a barnacle one of these days,” Raasvedh muttered. “Thanks, General. Now if you kids will move toward the center circle, please, we’re locating an insertion point for you; we’ll let you know when we’re ready. Any particular needs we should watch for?”

“Discreet,” Trissiny said. “We’d prefer to be able to get out without being noticed, to scout the situation before acting.”

“Well, thanks to the storm, that part will be easy. Even the Punaji will be indoors in a mess like this.” The Archmage turned back toward her colleagues at the nearby scrying mirror, who were muttering to each other and pointing at images appearing in the glass. “You may have trouble scouting, though…”

“Close, personal friend of the Princess,” Tallie muttered as they made their way toward the center as directed. “Knows Arachne fucking Tellwyrn. Honestly, shit like that is gonna take more getting used to than the armor, Jasmine.”

“Tellwyrn’s always teleporting people everywhere without any planning,” Trissiny said, shaking her head. “I never appreciated how impressive that actually is, I guess. Mostly it’s just obnoxious.”

“Not to mention presumptuous and highly rude,” Schwartz said with a frown. “Some cultures object to teleportation on religious and/or philosophical grounds.”

“And it’s Trissiny,” Layla added primly. “Respect cover, Tallie, you know that. When she’s not disguised you don’t throw around her cover name.”

“Yeah, yeah. Trissiny. What kind of name is that, anyway?”

“Elvish,” said the paladin with a wry grimace. “It means ‘silk tree.’”

“Wow.” Darius mimicked her expression. “I’m really starting to understand why you don’t get on with your mom.”

“You’ve noticed I have a sword now, right?”

“All right!” Raasvedh called to them. “We have an insertion point! A half-empty warehouse just off the waterfront, no sapients or active magic inside. Are you ready?”

“As we’ll ever be,” Schwartz replied, glancing at the others. Meesie hopped onto his head and grabbed a firm grip of blonde hair, flattening herself against his skull.

“Then godspeed, kids,” the Archmage said, raising her hands.

The lines on the floor around them flared a piercing blue-white, a shrill whine rose at the very edge of hearing, and then with a sharp electric crackle, the world vanished around them.

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13 – 34

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Such a procession drew attention and created a ripple of rumor that quickly swept across the city. It was early afternoon by the time they reached the wealthy district in which the Imperial Casino lay, and by that point, the news of their coming had preceded them. Well-dressed men and women had gathered on the sidewalks to stare, but mostly had the decency to remove their hats and lower their eyes in respect as the group passed. The street was also thronged with silent, grim-faced thieves of the Guild, waiting.

Trissiny walked in the front in full armor, her expression closed and eyes straight ahead, leading her silver-clad warhorse by his reins. Arjen followed with his own head lowered, surrounded by four young people, two men and two women. Only Schwartz stood out visibly, in his Salyrite robes and with Meesie riding on his shoulder. He, Tallie, and the Sakhavenid siblings kept pace with Arjen, each with one steadying hand on the carefully-wrapped bundle lying across the huge horse’s saddle. Though fully swathed, it apparent even without the presence of obvious pallbearers that it was a body.

Four Silver Legionnaires followed them, in uniform but helmetless and conspicuously absent their weapons, shivering in the winter air and looking a great deal more nervous than Legionnaires usually did in public. At the end of the procession walked a fifth soldier: Covrin had her helmet on, shield in hand, and lance held menacingly as if she intended to prod the woman in front of her at the slightest provocation. Beside her, also bare-headed and with an expression promising retribution, was Bishop Syrinx, her golden eagle-wrought sword drawn and ready.

The broad avenue terminated in a broad cul-de-sac before the steps of the Casino itself, the space now lined with quiet onlookers. Dozens of civilians murmured and jostled each other to stare, most of them in the expensive attire of the Casino’s usual clientele, but none tried to push past the perimeter of cold-faced Guild thieves enforcing a clear area in front of the steps.

Everyone stood where they were as Trissiny led the group straight toward the front doors of the Casino, with one exception. She had been standing on the top stair, watching up the street, and now as they approached, Style strode down and through the crowd. Only thieves had placed themselves in front of the steps, and so nobody had to be pushed bodily out of her way. They all knew better than to impede her.

Trissiny finally came to a stop near the center of the plaza. Style strode right up to and then past her, seeming not to notice anyone standing there and not the least bit impressed by the divine warhorse. Darius yielded his position and she came right up to Arjen’s side.

All muttering and coughing had utterly ceased among the onlookers by the time Style slipped her brawny arms, bare even in the cold, under Ross’s body and lifted him from the horse’s back. Despite his size, she did it with no apparent effort, but it was not her physical strength that held the watching enforcers silent. Everyone knew Style’s capacity for brute power, but rarely had they seen the towering chief enforcer’s face as it was now, crumpled with pain as if she might begin weeping any second.

The Hand of Avei stood to the side, head lowered, while Style carefully laid Ross upon the paving stones, and with amazing gentleness, folded back the white quilt with which they had covered him to reveal his face. He was already too pale to be merely sleeping.

At no apparent signal, every Eserite ringing the plaza silently raised their right fist defiantly to the sky.

“Lest the mighty grow complacent.” Lore’s voice was not raised—in fact, he spoke barely above a murmur from the top of the Casino’s steps. In the silence, though, he was clearly heard by all present. “Be warned: a thief can die, but the fight cannot.”

“WE ARE STILL HERE.”

Hundreds of voices, even in a respectfully soft tone, were deafening when they spoke in unison. The sounded from the enforcers circling the plaza, from the alleys and windows and rooftops all around. At this, finally, some of the civilian watchers began shuffling away, trying carefully to move up the street from the casino without creating a disruption that might draw attention. These were rich people, the kind the Thieves’ Guild existed to humble. It was one thing to play with danger by idling in the thieves’ own casino; being surrounded by the Guild in this mood was a horse of a different color.

Several enforcers came closer, forming a smaller, less precise ring around the group—not so much delineating space as making it plain by their presence, turned outward to stare flatly at the crowd, that no one was welcome to approach. Around them, though some stubborn rubberneckers remained to gawk, the crowd was beginning to stream away with enough speed that its sounds quickly grew loud enough to cover conversation. They were encouraged along by thieves turning from the scene in the middle of the plaza to give pointed looks at those who remained, several toying idly with weapons.

Style carefully folded the quilt back over Ross’s face. Still kneeling over him, she paused for a long moment to draw two steadying breaths before straightening back up to her full, intimidating height.

“All right,” the chief enforcer said simply. “Who did it?”

She turned to stare at the four disarmed Legionnaires, all of whom drew closer together in alarm and would have tried to back away had Covrin not deliberately planted the tip of her lance against the back of the sergeant’s breastplate.

“None of them,” Trissiny said evenly. “The murderer preferred death to justice. I…failed to apprehend her. That’s on me.”

“I’ll assume that’s the armor talking,” Style said shortly. “Avenist justice may be complicated, but as far at the Guild is concerned, if you killed the killer, that’s settled. Now I want to know what role this lot played, and why you brought them to me.”

“These are accomplices,” Trissiny said, turning to give the four a cold look. “They are guilty of abducting Ross, and also Schwartz here, but none of them did him any harm beyond that. Private Ulster, there, broke from them and raised steel on her comrades when Ross was shot. I don’t think they wanted anything to do with murder, and that one at least had the spine to take a stand, even if it was too late to be useful. We brought them here because they need to be debriefed and held until the Imperial investigators rounding up this conspiracy can finish their work. And right now, the Sisterhood of Avei is not trustworthy. I don’t want any more fish slipping the net before Commander Rouvad gets her house in order.”

“Well, you heard the General.” Boss Tricks materialized from the crowd as if he had teleported, pacing up to the group with an uncharacteristically dark expression. “We’ve got some guests, people. See that they’re comfortable.”

Several of the surrounding enforcers stepped forward, two hefting cudgels and Grip, at their head, toying pointedly with a long knife. The soldiers drew into an even tighter knot, eyes widening, and the sergeant finally found her voice.

“Now, just a minute here. High Commander Rouvad specifically said Legionnaires aren’t to be held by—”

Trissiny crossed to them with astonishing speed for someone in armor, her sword clearing her scabbard as she came; Schwartz barely got out of her way fast enough to avoid being run over. Sergeant Raathi broke off with an undignified squeak when the edge of the paladin’s blade came to rest against her throat.

“Rouvad,” Trissiny said icily, “is not here. I am. If I were to take your head off your shoulders right now, Sergeant, who among those present do you think will raise a whisper of complaint?”

Bishop Syrinx twirled her own sword, the flash of motion intended to catch Raathi’s attention, then deliberately sheathed the weapon, folded her arms, and smirked. Raathi’s throat moved abortively, as if she had started to swallow and then changed her mind.

“You will cooperate with the Guild,” Trissiny continued after enough of a pause had stretched out to make her point plain. “You will answer any questions you are asked and cause no trouble, and if I receive a favorable report of your conduct, I will make certain it’s considered at your trial. Do otherwise and I won’t do anything at all, and you can learn for yourself how far Commander Rouvad’s say-so goes among the Thieves’ Guild. Do I make myself plain?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Trissiny held her gaze for a moment longer before lowering the sword and turning her back dismissively on the four. “Boss, I’m trusting that they won’t be mistreated here.”

“No call for that, I don’t think,” Tricks said, studying the armored women dispassionately. “Long as they do what’s asked of ’em, it’s better for the whole business if they have no cause to complain about their treatment when it’s time for trials and sentencing. We do know a thing or two about handling the justice system, after all. In fact, we can consider that my official verdict on the matter.” The Boss raised his voice and subtly shifted to direct his words to the crowd at large. “The law is already closing in on this conspiracy, and seems to have most of ’em in hand. If it does so, fine; the Guild won’t contest the right of way with the Empire. But. These bastards have killed one of our own—an apprentice. There will be no more mercy offered. I officially no longer give a shit about interfaith procedure. Any member of this conspiracy who is not safely in Imperial custody by sunset will be found hanging in the doorway of their own temple by dawn. Be they altar boys or High Commanders, I don’t care. Eserite blood is never the last to be spilled. I have spoken.”

He received a round of sharp nods, and almost every Guild thief present who was not already moving to escort the four Legionnaires into the Casino turned and began melting away into the shadows and alleyways.

“Why have I got the strangest fucking feeling,” Style said grimly, folding her arms, “that you kids aren’t done making a goddamn mess.”

Darius cleared his throat. “Style, none of us are in any mood. If you even suggest what happened to Ross is our fault, I’m gonna come over there and smack you one.”

She raised her eyebrows fractionally. “Boy, you have to know I can demolish you with one hand.”

“I surely do, and I’ll do it anyway.”

“The defiance is good, Darius, but keep it pointed where it deserves,” Tricks said firmly. “No infighting, not right now. Kids, I expect great things from all of you, and believe me, I know what it feels like to want retribution. You all know our doctrine of revenge, though.”

“You…have a doctrine for that?” Schwartz asked hesitantly.

“Revenge should only be sought,” Tallie recited in a quiet monotone, “if it serves both a strategic and personal goal. Strategic in that it will dissuade the target or others from committing more actions that demand retaliation. Personal in that the target must understand by whom and for what they are being punished, and be unable to prevent their comeuppance, because only in that circumstance will it bring satisfaction.”

“That is disturbingly insightful,” he muttered.

“And the killer is dead,” Tricks stated, glancing at Trissiny. “which takes that off the table. The people responsible for the whole debacle are being rounded up by far more effective agents than you. This is not a situation where you can help.”

“Not more effective than her,” Tallie said defiantly, also turning to Trissiny.

“And,” Layla added, “it seems the one person most responsible is in no position to be rounded up.”

Tricks shot a look at Syrinx, who still had her arms folded and was now listening without expression.

“If you kids are thinking of trying to rough up the Archpope, so help me I will put you all in cells until you cool down. I don’t care whose Hand any of you are.”

Arjen turned to stare at him, laying his ears back, which the Boss ignored.

“Excuse me, I’m not even in your cult,” Schwartz said testily.

“I think it’s pretty significant we didn’t even have to say who we’re all talking about,” Tallie said dryly.

“And no,” Trissiny added, “no one’s talking about going to the Cathedral and attacking Justinian. No one here is stupid enough to think that would work.”

“Yo.” Darius raised his hand. “Totally that stupid, for the record. That’s why I let my baby sister tag along all the time, she’s the plan person.”

“I take full credit for his survival to date,” Layla said primly.

“It seems,” Trissiny continued, “the events of this week in Tiraas are just one part of something that has parallels in Last Rock and Puna Dara. While Justinian’s name has been brought up a lot, the truth is we haven’t absolute proof that he is the one orchestrating all this behind the scenes. Which means that both justice and revenge can be best sought without attacking him directly. Whoever is responsible for this, I mean to go make certain they get nothing they want today, and that they see who wrecked their careful plans.”

Style swelled like a bullfrog, but then released the air in a heavy sigh. “And so you’re thinking of taking my apprentices and charging off to Last Rock to help your little adventurer friends?”

“She’s not taking us anywhere,” Tallie stated, glaring at her. “We’re going with. You can dish out whatever punishment you want when we get back, Style, but this is fucking well happening. Live with it.”

“And no,” Trissiny said before Style could retort. “Last Rock is a monster that eats overweening fools; anybody who wants to try their luck with Tellwyrn and my classmates is welcome to have at it. But Puna Dara is not prepared for the kinds of trouble someone like Justinian can unleash, and I have a good friend who will never forgive me if I turn my back on the Punaji when they need help. That is where I’m going. And as far as I’m concerned, everyone here has the right to come if they choose to exercise it.”

“I swear,” Style muttered, shaking her head. “A thorn in my ass to the very end.”

“You realize, kid,” Tricks said quietly, “that not everybody is secretly a paladin. The kind of trouble that you exist to stamp down gets regular people killed. How many friends are you looking to lose today?”

“If you can persuade them not to come,” she whispered, “do. Please.”

“We’ve had this out already,” Tallie said, much more firmly. “This isn’t the big bad paladin ordering us to fight. We’re Guild, Boss; nobody orders us to do jack shit.”

Style cleared her throat pointedly.

“What’re you grunting about?” Darius snorted. “It’s true and you know it. You complain about it often enough.”

“Historically speaking,” Layla added, “paladins do not operate alone; they have usually been the focus of adventurer teams. Three thieves and a witch makes for pretty good backup, I’d say.”

“Apprentice thieves!” Style grated.

Tricks shook his head, but held up a hand. “Technically, I do have the prerogative to forbid you from going.” He gave Style a long, pensive look. “But…we’re not big on technicalities here, are we?”

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” she said incredulously.

“A great doom is coming,” the Boss murmured. “Shit’s going down, Style. I’ve heard from the Big Guy himself about our pet paladin, here. The word is to give her space to do what she wants, unless she gets into something we specifically cannot support. This is Guild retribution of exactly the kind our very few doctrines support. If any thieves want to have her back, apprentice or no… They’re cleared to go.”

Style turned her back, cursing monotonously under her breath.

“But you,” Tricks said grimly to Trissiny, “just keep in mind that raising a fist in defiance is the why but not the how of Eserion’s people. You assess the situation, you act with strategy, and you don’t take needless risks with our people’s lives.”

“You don’t need to tell me,” she replied, “but I appreciate that you did, nonetheless. I don’t plan to lose anybody else, today.”

“Yeah?” he shot back. “Did you plan to lose Ross?”

“Okay, that was not necessary,” Schwartz snapped. Meesie hopped onto his head and chittered angry agreement.

“It’s not wrong, though,” Trissiny said quietly. “Anything could happen. In war, people die.”

“You gotta trust us on this, Boss,” Tallie said, wearing a grim little smile. “I’ve been thinking on it all the way over. The biggest advantage of having our very own paladin isn’t even her capacity to break shit: it’s that with her riding at the head, nobody’ll even see us coming.”

Tricks heaved a sigh, rolling his eyes. “She said, in the middle of the street.”

That prompted a round of winces and glances around. Actually his concern might have been overstated; most of the onlookers had left, either voluntarily or shooed away by enforcers, and nobody who remained was within earshot. What was left of the crowd was again generating enough typical city noise to cover their conversation.

“Hey, give her a break,” Darius said reasonably. “After all, we’re just apprentices.”


“How’s it look out there, Sanrachi?” one of the gathered soldiers asked merrily as their soaking-wet comrade entered the barracks.

“Fucking glorious,” she replied with the same good cheer, settling onto one of the benches close to the fireplace and picking up a rag from the supplies laid out there. She began removing, drying and oiling her gear as she continued, not seeming to mind the rainwater that plastered her own clothes and hair. “It’s one of Naphthene’s own rages out there. I can’t believe you lazy sods are sitting around in here instead of out playing in the rain.”

“Yeah, well, you can go back out when your shift is over,” the lieutenant presently in charge said, looking up from his book and raising an eyebrow. “We’re all on standby. If that means missing a really good blow, well, life’s hard.”

“Not me!” another man called. “I haven’t missed a really good blow since I met Apta’s—”

“Yeah, yeah, my sister’s a whore, we’ve all heard it,” a fellow soldier grunted, tossing a boot at him without raising his attention from his game of chess. “You need some new material.”

The small barracks was on the second floor of the Rock’s southern gatehouse, set inside the massive outer wall of the fortress itself. This was not the main troop housing, but served as a common area where soldiers stationed on gate watch gathered. At times like this, the policy was to have enough troops on the ramparts to keep watch over the city, but more in reserve below not being distracted and tired out by having to remain alert in the middle of a storm. As much as Punaji enjoyed stormy weather as a rule, manning the top of a wall during a tropical gale as fierce as the one now raging could wear a person out. Sanrachi’s replacement had already gone above to relieve her, and another swap would take place in half an hour. With the weather this bad, the twelve soldiers patrolling the gatehouse’s towers would be rotated constantly, so there was always someone with fresh eyes on the city.

In theory, the Rock should have nothing to fear from the people of Puna Dara, but the very fact of the Punaji affinity for storms meant that watchers on the walls could not trust the weather alone to keep the gates clear, as might be the practice elsewhere.

“All quiet out there?” the lieutenant asked, then had to pause for a particularly loud clap of thunder. “…you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sanrachi said, grinning. “The usual. Some folks out in the street, but not a sign of these Rust bastards. I guess their name’s not a complete coincidence, huh? They seem shy about getting wet. So, uh…” She glanced curiously at some of the new arrivals, whose silver armor stood out strikingly among the Punaji uniforms. “What brings you out here, Sisters? I heard you were honored guests of the royal family.”

“That’s the theory,” Ephanie said lightly, “but we’re letting our LT hog all the honor. Honestly, you know how it is. We all complain about the digs we’re assigned, but put me on plush carpeting and silk sheets and I’m afraid to touch anything. I have no idea which one’s even the shrimp fork.”

“Shrimp fork’s the one you use to stab the shrimp who complains about what fork you’re eating with!” shouted the man who’d made the crack about Apta’s sister, earning a round of guffaws.

“Well, you’re welcome in here,” the lieutenant said, smiling warmly at her. In fact, Ephanie in particular had been the focus of a fair amount of attention from most of the men and several of the women stationed in this gatehouse. “Good company’s always appreciated. We don’t even mind you sharing the rations; we don’t go hungry around here.”

“Aw, we wouldn’t wanna be a burden,” Casey said cheerfully. “That’s why we keep Lang around! Someone so terrible at cards can’t help but make us friends.”

Merry scowled at her, slapping her handful of cards down on the table amid the laughter of the rest of the poker players. Indeed, her stack of pennies was the smallest by a wide margin. “I fucking knew it! That’s it, soon as we’re back in Tiraas I’m putting in a requisition for come compensation.”

While the joking and laughter carried on, Ephanie politely extracted herself from the lieutenant’s attention and went to join Nandi, who was standing by one of the windows, staring out at the storm with a slight frown.

“All right, Shahai?” she asked softly. “I’ve never known you to be bothered by a little thunder and lightning.”

“It isn’t that,” Nandi said slowly. “I can almost hear…something.”

Ephanie’s eyebrows drew together pensively. “Can you be a little more specific?”

“I wish I could, Avelea. I cannot pick it out, but I have the sense that there is a background sound that…” She trailed off, then finally tore her eyes from the window to look at Ephanie directly. “Elven hearing is a matter of focus. Discerning as many sounds as we do, we’d go mad from over-stimulation if we did not learn to tune most of it out. There is an art to hearing almost everything in one’s vicinity and deciding, subconsciously, what is important. Sometimes the fact that this is art and not science works against us. Something is nagging at me, and I cannot fix my attention upon it. The storm and the soldiers, obviously, do not help.”

“I’ve never seen you do that, either,” Ephanie said, studying her. “You have a great deal of experience to draw on, Shahai. Is this ringing any bells at all? Anything you want to tell me about?”

Nandi’s eyes had narrowed in concentration, tracking to the side as she listened, but at that she fixed her gaze back on Ephanie’s. “It’s nothing I would be comfortable initiating action based upon, but… My experience has been that when I have this sensation, it means someone nearby is attempting to be very stealthy, aware that an elf can hear them. Stealthier than a normal human is capable of being.”

Ephanie nodded slowly. “All right. Thanks for the warning; I’ll discreetly notify the others to be on the alert, but I don’t think we want to spook the local troops just yet.”

“No…tell their lieutenant, at least,” Merry said, having abandoned the last of her pennies and joined them in time to catch the latter part of their exchange. “We’re not the big damn heroes here, that’s those Last Rock kids and possibly Locke. We came here to support the Punaji; I think it’s a bad idea to have the attitude that these troopers are yokels who can’t be trusted to take care of their own city. We should share intel that might be important. Uh, I mean…ma’am.” She finished weakly, belatedly noticing Ephanie’s very pointed stare.

“Mouth off like that in front of anyone, Lang, and I’m gonna have to land on you,” Ephanie said dryly, “but with that said, you are dead right and I thank you for the reminder. Just learn to watch your tone. Most of the Legions do not share Locke’s idea of military comportment.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Merry said contritely.

Ephanie nodded to Nandi. “I’ll go have a discreet word with their LT. I’ve been getting the vibe he’d be happy enough to speak with me in private. It should be his call what to tell his troops, if anything, and if he doesn’t believe me, that’s that.”

“I find human soldiers are often impressed by ‘elf stuff’ to an almost superstitious degree,” Nandi said, her grave tone somewhat spoiled by the twitch of her lips. “Don’t hesitate to mention the ears.”

Ephanie grinned and patted her shoulder. “Back shortly. Keep those ears perked and let me know if you can pick anything important out.”

“Will do.”

Not even an elf could have heard the distortion of candle smoke, or even the movement of air as it was displaced by an invisible body in the rafters; with all the noise of the storm and the boisterous soldiers present, the hidden figure above managed to creep from beam to beam all the way to the stairwell door without drawing further attention.

Rather than risk opening it herself, she had to wait for the next shift change and slip out after the soldier who went to relieve his counterpart upon the battlements. It was a simple enough matter to trip him while he was opening the heavy wooden door, providing her with an opportunity to squeeze past and scamper almost silently up the stairs.

At the top, troopers were hunkered down against the battlements themselves, lifelines tied to their belts in case of someone being blown over the edge. With the wind roaring as it was, Kheshiri didn’t even try to unfurl her wings; she’d have been instantly picked up and hurled halfway to the Stalrange. Flattening herself against the floor and as close to the inner wall as she could, she made her way carefully across, mindful of both storm and soldiers, heading for the other gatehouse—the one not currently inhabited by an elf.

This delay had cost her time. The others would be getting impatient; Shook could only take his frustrations out on her later, but if Khadizroth feared she had been intercepted he might go and do something unfortunate. She would have to move faster to get the gate open, which meant creating an opportunity rather than waiting for one.

The thought was enough to set her tail waving in anticipation.

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13 – 32

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The back door opened onto a perfectly ordinary kitchen, dim with the lack of any active fairy lamps or torches. There was both a modern arcane stove and an old-fashioned hearth, neither showing signs of having been in recent use. The apprentices crept through with all the silence their training had granted them, even Meesie perching still and quiet on Jasmine’s shoulder. It was hard to tell how intelligent the little fire elemental actually was, but despite her clear agitation over Schwartz’s abduction, she was able to follow orders well enough, at least once Jasmine had explained the necessity.

In truth, there was some cover for their movements, as Bishop Syrinx had evidently found someone, to judge by the raised voices echoing from somewhere in the house—both female, one hers. Tallie took the lead, gesturing for the rest to follow, and peeked around the kitchen door the way she had been taught: approaching it backwards, leaning her head to the side around the corner and presenting the smallest possible profile while glancing rapidly about with one eye.

She gestured them again, indicating that room was clear, and they slipped into a parlor that was just as ordinary in appearance, and just as dim. The only light came from the windows; a lack of drawn drapes suggested someone was in residence and awake (one of the signs a thief was trained to look for), but there remained no sign of the house’s inhabitants, aside from Syrinx’s confrontation.

They froze at the ring of metal upon metal, accompanied by a shout. Jasmine started to lunge forward, but Tallie seized her by the arm, and she restrained herself in response, nodding acknowledgment of the silent reminder. Tallie resumed point position, creeping up to the other way into the room, which had no door and appeared to lead into an entrance hall.

She paused at the sound of heavy footsteps, and then more scuffling and another shout much closer at hand—just around the corner, in fact. There came a thump and a shriek, and then the distinctive ascending sound of booted feet running up a carpeted stairwell.

Tallie peeked carefully around the edge again, then glanced back at the others and beckoned them forward as she stepped brazenly into the foyer.

They found Jenell slumped against the banister of a staircase, shield dangling from her hand and sword lodged in the wall nearby, with her free hand pressed to the side of her head. Blood seeped from between her fingers. Syrinx was just arriving from another direction, also carrying a bared blade. She gave the apprentices a single dismissive glance, then her aura flashed alight and she raised a glowing hand to touch Jenell’s.

“I suppose after having you do secretarial work for months on end, Covrin, it’s not fair to expect you to be able to stand up to a real Legionnaire in a fight. Hold still, you flighty hen, this won’t take a moment.”

“Hey, that’s a head wound,” Darius said, crowding up behind Jasmine and Layla. “Shouldn’t she go to an actual—”

“Boy, if I ever ask for your opinion, it will mean I am possessed by a particularly inept demon and I want you to shoot me on the spot.” Syrinx lowered her hand and her glow, already stepping around Covrin to peer up the stairs. “Heading to an upper floor is a quick way to corner yourself, unless… Whatever that girl is up to, I had better put a stop to it. Covrin, come.”

“Wait!” Jasmine said quickly. “Show us where that soldier was standing. The exact spot.”

There was a pause in which the other apprentices frowned in confusion, while Jenell cast a wary look at Syrinx as if expecting some kind of outburst, but after a second the Bishop nodded thoughtfully.

“Quite right, well spotted. Straight down the hallway here is a small library; she was standing in front of the bookcase with the bust of Theasia on one shelf. Come, Covrin, time’s wasting.”

Once again they parted ways, and in much the same manner as before: Syrinx charging ahead and dragging Covrin along in her wake, while the apprentices moved most cautiously deeper into the house.

“Psst,” Darius whispered as they filed into the library, which was roughly the size of a bedroom, lined with laden bookshelves, and actually lit with fairy lamps. “Anybody know what Theasia looks like?”

Tallie swept a stare around the room. “Well, we do now, since there’s only one bust of anybody in here. Her Majesty was a handsome lady!” She crossed to the case in question, which was heavily laden with books, apart from the spots kept clear by bookends to create display space for the small bust, a unicorn horn in its own stand, and a bottle full of thick liquid that glowed faintly and moved in a continuous slow swirl. “Jas, you’re thinking secret entrance?”

“Only thing that makes sense of this,” Jasmine replied, still hovering by the door. “If they’re really short on personnel, like if they didn’t have enough to post guards at all entrances of the house, they might have just posted one on the sole entrance to wherever they’ve gone. Then, if the guard came under attack and couldn’t quickly retreat through it, she’d logically try to run to draw the attacker away. Meesie, is Schwartz behind that door?”

Meesie squeaked once, and leaned forward off Jasmine’s shoulder to point straight down.

“Layla, you’re the best with locks,” Tallie said. “Can you find the hidden whatchamajigger?”

“Ah, yes, in fact I know a trick for situations just such as this,” Layla said primly, stepping forward. The pulled a book off the shelf, then another, and another…

“Are you just trying every book?” Tallie demanded, softly as Layla continued to build a stack on a nearby table.

“If someone knows a faster way, that would be delightful. I know locks, not secret bookcases.”

“Careful, there,” Darius warned, hovering around her worriedly. “This is a warlock’s house and that’s apparently the door to his secret basement…”

“So be wary of traps, yes,” Tallie said, “but…I don’t think this guy is home. If there was a warlock in residence, it stands to reason we’d be having demon problems by now, after Syrinx blew the hell out of his wards.”

A hefty thump sounded from directly above them, followed by scuffling, a muffled shriek, and then more footsteps stomping away. They all stared at the ceiling for a moment, then Layla and Darius resumed dismantling the bookcase.

“One problem I see with your theory, Jas,” Darius grunted, setting an atlas down on the floor as quietly as possible. “Posting a guard on this entrance basically revealed what it was. That doesn’t seem smart.”

“How many of their actions so far have been smart?” she countered. “If the warlock’s not here, this may just be Legionnaires; remember the Bishops were out rounding up other members of the conspiracy. Some Avenist personnel are trained in intelligence tactics, but most rank-and-file won’t—”

“And click goes the mechanism!” Layla said smugly, her hand on an economics treatise which had not come all the way loose. Indeed, she and Darius then had to back away as the half-unloaded bookcase swung silently outward. Behind it was a dark stairwell, descending in a steep spiral into the unknown.

“Okay,” Tallie said grimly. “Slow and silent, people. This has got to be the last leg of the journey. We get down there, we scout, we do whatever needs doing. We all know our strengths. Any fighting, Jasmine takes point, followed by Darius. Layla’s best with nimble fingers and a silver tongue, so you’re on any filching or sweet-talking. I’m a cat burglar; I’ll do any stealthy clambering around the situation calls for. We may not be able to talk once we’re down there without revealing ourselves, so keep your eyes open and watch each other’s backs. Ready?”

A chorus of soft affirmations followed, including one from Meesie. Tallie nodded once, then turned and stepped into the darkness.

Gauging distance by feel was among the skills Guild thieves learned, but it was one that required practice to develop judgment, which none of them had had. It was clear, though, that this stairwell went down below the level of a basement. Below that would be the sewer system, which made sense; the Guild used the broad tunnels when they weren’t flooding, as did various other troublemakers, but that very fact made it unlikely that a warlock would use a sewer space for any secret purpose. Somebody would likely come across it, and it would be swept clean by the regular torrential runoffs from Tiraas’s heavy rains which were the reason its sewer tunnels were so broad.

Then again, rumors of secret, sealed-off chambers hidden within the tunnel system were as old as the sewers themselves…

Jasmine walked second after Tallie, with Meesie on her shoulder; the elemental’s glow wasn’t bright, but it was the only light they had, and barely enough to find their footing in the cramped stairwell. Darius, bringing up the rear, had the least illumination and descended with one hand on Layla’s shoulder.

They decreased their already slow pace as voices began to sound from below. The words were garbled beyond comprehension by distance and echo, but if nothing else it was a sign that they were close. A minute later, the faintest glow of light appeared.

The group paused, Tallie turning to look up at the rest of them. Jasmine picked Meesie up off her shoulder, lifting the mouse to her lips and whispering a few almost silent words. The little elemental sat bolt upright in her palm, whiskers twitching, and then nodded once and quickly squeezed herself into Jasmine’s sleeve. Without her reddish glow, the paler yellow of lamplight from below was all they had to go on.

It turned out they were closer than they’d realized; immediately around the next turn of the stairwell, a doorway appeared. Tallie crouched next to it, peeking carefully out, and then dropped to crawl on her belly through the opening. The others followed suit, each as the one in front cleared a space for them, emerging from the stairwell into an underground chamber lit only by a single fairy lamp.

Finally, they had a stroke of luck; this place might as well have been designed to give anyone entering from the stairs a tactical advantage over the room’s occupants. In fact, judging by a few rusted chains still bolted to the walls, that might have been literally the case. It was laid out exactly like the Pit back at Guild headquarters, only a fraction of the size; a stone path ran all the way around the edges of the room, at the level of the entrance, with a single flight of steps descending to the cubic depression below. Crawling along as flat as they could get to peek over the ledge, they had a perfect vantage.

And of course, by the time they emerged from the stairwell they could clearly hear the conversation taking place, and listened while getting themselves into position.

“But it’s different if it’s someone you know?”

“Yes! All right? Is that what you wanted to hear?” Ildrin Falaridjad’s voice cracked and she paused before continuing. “I have worked with Herschel, and he’s a sweet—look. I didn’t decide to kill the gnome, nor did I do it, nor would I have approved of that! All of that was on Tanenbaum!”

“Or on whoever he got his orders from…”

“I am the liaison to his Holiness!”

“You’re certain you’re the only one, Sister?”

Tallie was the first in position to peek over the edge; the others spread themselves out to the right, avoiding the steps which would be the first place the pit’s inhabitants would look for intruders.

Ildrin had been pacing up and down in agitation, and now stopped to glare at the Legionnaire wearing sergeant’s stripes, who was the one arguing with her. Two other Legionnaires, both privates, were standing against the wall, looking nervous.

Both their missing friends were against another wall. Schwartz lay in an awkward position; he had his wrists bound together in front of him (a rookie mistake as they all had been taught; you tied a prisoner’s hands behind them, especially if they were spellcasters) and was slumped on his side, clearly unconscious. Ross sat next to him with his back to the wall, awake and apparently perfectly calm, watching the argument unfold. It was hard to take cues from that. Ross was always calm.

“What are you insinuating, Raathi?” Ildrin demanded, glaring at the sergeant. Tallie gently nudged Jasmine, then tilted her head once significantly and received a nod in return. The Legionnaires were only carrying their traditional melee weapons, but Ildrin had a wand in her hands. In fact, she was twisting it nervously in both fists in a manner that would send anyone schooled in basic wand safety into a rage.

“I don’t mean to insinuate anything,” Sergeant Raathi said, meeting the priestess’s gaze without flinching, “but we need to face the fact that this situation is completely out of control. Tanenbaum was supposed to be here to tell us our next steps, but he’s not. You are supposed to be acting on orders directly from the Archpope, but he was just in a public pulpit yesterday denouncing people exactly like us!”

“His Holiness is wise, and clever,” Ildrin shot back. “Obviously, he had to deflect attention from—”

“And were you told that or did you assume it after the fact?” one of the other soldiers interrupted.

“Can it, private,” Raathi barked. Ildrin glared at the girl who had spoken, who shrank back against the wall, all the military stiffness leaking from her shoulders.

Tallie, meanwhile, had been instigating a series of nudges to get everyone’s attention, and now began gesticulating. She pointed at Jasmine and then Darius, and then to the stairs down to the pit, finally making a sign to wait. Tapping her own forehead, she indicated the far corner of the room, behind Ildrin, then pointed at Layla and made a couple of hand signals at which the girl in question frowned in confusion.

Jasmine nodded once, though, and Darius leaned close to his sister to whisper directly in her ear. He and Jasmine would draw attention via the main stairs; Tallie, being the most limber, would ambush Ildrin from above and behind and take that wand out of play, and Layla was to hang back until the scuffle got underway, the intervene in whatever manner opportunity provided to tip the balance. They had no way of waking Schwartz, but with the wand down Ross would be able to help. Hopefully, they would collectively be enough to fend off the Legionnaires.

“Insubordination aside,” Raathi was saying, turning back to Ildrin, “she has a point. Do you know what is happening, Sister?”

“I…” Ildrin trailed off, turning a helpless stare on Schwartz and Ross, and swallowed. The hair at her temples was slick with sweat. Again, she fidgeted dangerously with the wand, and both privates began edging away from the direction in which it happened to be pointed.

“Aimless grunting is not what I want to hear,” Raathi snapped. “Goddess, we just abducted an apprentice of the Thieves’ Guild! Arresting them was one thing, but this. Tricks will send enforcers after our families if we don’t have a plan to get out of this situation, and here you are, making goldfish faces and stammering!”

“I did not tell you to do that!” Ildrin shrieked. “What were you thinking?!”

“Well, we had to do something! He was following and—it’s done, now, regardless. What about the witch, Falaridjad? You said he fought off Athan’Khar monsters! I had exactly one sleep dart, and he’s going to be waking up in minutes. What then? He’ll demolish us! Unless—”

“I am not going to murder an unconscious boy!” Ildrin snarled.

“Then him murdering us, that’s all right with you?”

“He won’t,” the priestess insisted. “I know him. Hershel wouldn’t harm anyone who didn’t… That is, unless he was…”

“Was what? Threatened? Abducted? Tied up and drugged? Falaridjad, you’re supposedly in charge, here. That means you need to come up with a plan. If you’re not going to kill him, what are we going to do?”

“We could surrender,” suggested the soldier who had spoken out previously.

“Private, you will shut your mouth!” Raathi growled.

“Ya could, though,” Ross said suddenly.

Everyone paused.

Jasmine and Darius were in position, flat on the ground out of sight just behind the stairs, she whispering to the quivering lump in her sleeve. Tallie had just reached her spot behind Ildrin, creeping low along the wall, and was in the process of worming forward to peek over the edge again; Layla just huddled in the far corner, looking surly at not having something more specific to do. All of them froze, as did the abductors in the pit.

“You just…be quiet,” Ildrin said at last with an unconvincing effort at authority.

“The thing is, you’re all right,” Ross said. “I mean, all correct, I don’t think anybody here’s all right. This mess is out of control, an’ it’s not really any of your fault. Well, maybe not all of it.”

“Shut up,” Ildrin snapped, brandishing the wand. “The last thing I’m going to do is listen to you!”

He shrugged; Darius, Jasmine, and Tallie had all wormed forward to peek carefully over the ledges, watching for the right moment. They had to time this precisely, and Ildrin was the dangerous element here. She was agitated and playing around with a deadly weapon. Unless they neutralized her quickly…

“I think you tried to do the right thing at every step,” Ross continued, his voice oddly nonchalant. “Started out want’n ta be moral an’ stand for what you believed, right? Dealt with the problem in front of you the best you could, an’ then the next thing, while it all got more an’ more outta control, till you’re ass-deep in kidnapping an’ murder an’ don’t really know how it happened. I can relate, a bit.”

Ildrin and the soldiers were all staring at him now, apparently stunned into silence. The apprentices above barely dared to breathe. If he could talk them down, this could all be over in the most perfect outcome they could hope for.

“I mean, not the kidnapping an’ stuff, that’s outside my area,” Ross continued. “But…doin’ your best and it all goin’ to hell anyway. I’ve been there. The private’s right. Sorry, miss, didn’t get yer name,” he added to the soldier. “Maybe you just gotta stop and realize what a mess you’re in, and… Y’know, stop. I think we’re in a thing now where doin’ anything more will just make it worse for—”

“All right, enough, shut up,” Ildrin said suddenly, gripping the wand again and holding it up. Behind her, Tallie tensed, preparing to burst into motion if she had to. Not that she could move faster than a lightning bolt… “Just…stop. You’re just trying to confuse me. We’re working on behalf of the Archpope. He is right, we are in the right, and this will work out. His Holiness has a plan. We just have to…to stay the…”

Ross grunted, then moving slowly as if to avoid spooking a skittish horse, began standing up.

“Stop it!” Ildrin said shrilly, pointing the wand directly at him. Sergeant Raathi rested a hand on the hilt of her sword, but didn’t otherwise move. “Don’t you—just sit down!”

Disregarding her orders, Ross finished straightening, and took one step, placing himself between her and the unconscious form of Schwartz. He held up his hands, palms forward, and spoke quietly.

“Look, lady, I dunno your story. But just from listening to you, I can tell you’re better than this. You just wanted to do the right thing. Well, everything’s a mess right now, but… It’s time to do that. You gotta stop.”

“I—you don’t…” She had the wand clenched in her fist, pointed straight at him; it quivered from the tension in her arm. “You’re just… You sit down, and be quiet. I will shoot!”

“No ya won’t,” he said quietly. “You’re better than that.”

Ildrin emitted a strangled noise that might have been part of a sob, then squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head away. She did not lower her hand, though. Ross watched her face, while Jasmine and Darius watched the tip of the wand in mounting alarm.

The priestess was distracted but wouldn’t lower the weapon; Tallie rose smoothly to a crouch, gathering herself to pounce like a cat. Hesitation could be fatal, and there would not be a better opportunity.

But in doing so, she brought part of her body above the edge of the pit. Raathi, watching Ildrin from the side, caught the motion and turned toward it, letting out a yell and drawing her sword.

In the dim, enclosed space, the flash of lightning rendered everyone momentarily blind; the crackle of the wandshot, ordinarily no rival to a real thunderclap, was absolutely deafening.

The apprentices moved, though, blind or not, several with anguished yells. Darius lost his footing on the steps, slipping painfully down them and fortunately not tripping Jasmine, who had leaped straight off the edge. Tallie flung herself from the rim of the pit, but with her eyes closed, missed Ildrin, who had skittered back amid all the noise.

They landed there and froze again, Ildrin having backed up to stand next to Raathi, and turned the wand on them.

“Freeze! Everyone stop right there!” she screamed. Tallie crouched with her arms spread, clearly preparing to spring at her, but obeyed. Jasmine, though, ignored the order, rushing to Ross’s side.

He had fallen back against the wall, partially on top of Schwartz. His clothes smoked faintly.

“You bitch,” Darius snarled, his voice half-choked. “You fucking—”

“No,” Ildrin cried, turning her stare on Jasmine and Ross. “I didn’t—no, that’s not, I wasn’t… Oh, goddess.”

“It’s a little late for prayers, Falaridjad,” Basra Syrinx stated, striding into the room from the staircase above. She descended the second flight of steps in three long bounds.

“You!” Ildrin shrieked, turning the wand on her.

Basra lit up, a golden sphere snapping into place around her, and in the next moment a wandshot sparked against it harmlessly.

“I suggest you cut that out before you make this any worse for yourself, Ildrin,” Basra said flatly. She strode across the pit floor, apparently unconcerned with the wand being fired at her, and knelt next to Jasmine, the light surrounding her brightening further. “Give me space, girl.”

“Is he…” Layla’s face appeared over the rim of the pit above, but she couldn’t finish the question.

“You—all of you—you just freeze,” Ildrin stammered, clutching the wand in both hands now. Tallie started forward, then halted as the weapon was turned on her.

Basra let out a soft sigh, and the glow about her diminished. “…damn. There’s nothing I can do here.”

“No,” Tallie shouted, turning to her and seeming to forget for a moment about the wand trained on her. “No, it’s… People get shot by wands all the time, and walk away. You’re a priestess, you can…”

“Lightning is unpredictable,” Basra said evenly. “It might give you a mere burn, or nerve damage, but if it strikes the heart, or the brain…”

“No!” Tallie protested again. “You have to do something!”

“Vidius himself can’t fix this,” the Bishop said, shifting to kneel over Schwartz. She began lightly slapping his face. “Come on, Schwartz, it’s time to get up. What did you do to this boy? You’d better hope you haven’t left two bodies in your wake today, Falaridjad…”

She paused when Meesie came skittering out of Jasmine’s sleeve to perch upon Schwartz’s head, pointing up at her and chittering furiously.

“Two,” Ildrin whispered.

“Put. The weapon. Down.” Jasmine rose slowly to her feet, fixing her cold glare on the priestess.

Ildrin swallowed once, heavily. “Sergeant… Soldiers. Weapons up. We’re already—”

“Falaridjad,” Basra warned, “I know what you’re thinking, and you are wrong. You have no idea the danger you are in right now. Lower the weapon.”

“Already have blood on our hands,” Ildrin said, her voice firming by the moment. “If they all just…disappear down here—”

“Absolutely not!” roared the more outspoken of the two Legionnaires suddenly. “That’s enough of this. Sister, lower the wand.”

“Private,” Raathi shouted, “I am not going to tell you again—”

“Go right to hell, Sergeant!” she snarled back, drawing her sword. “This is insane! That boy was talking the only sense I’ve heard in days, and now…” She stepped back from the others, bringing her sword up. “No more. Your Grace… Orders?”

“I suggest you step away from the murdering traitors while the stepping is good, private,” Basra said dryly.

“Raathi, swords up,” Ildrin said, baring her teeth. “It’s us or them, now.”

“I don’t…” The sergeant trailed off, swallowed, and raised her weapon. The remaining Legionnaire looked on the verge of panicking, but did the same.

Ildrin turned the wand on Tallie. “I’m sorry it had to be this way.”

“It didn’t, you unmitigated cunt,” Tallie hissed.

Then Jasmine stepped right in front of her, placing herself in the path of the wand.

“I’ll tell you again,” she said coldly. “Drop that weapon, or I will take it from you.”

Ildrin swallowed heavily. “I really am,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”

Once again, the burst of light was blinding. But this time, it didn’t stop.

The glow of divine light blazed from her, annihilating the presumptuous lightning bolt and putting Basra’s aura to shame. Dimness was banished from every corner of the room by Avei’s light, and yet it was strangely gentle to the eyes. Though it was as if a miniature sun had risen in the chamber, they could all see plainly through it.

Golden wings extended upward almost to the edges of the pit from behind her. The silver armor materialized out of the air, first as simple lines of light and then hardening into metal and leather. The shield, marked with the golden eagle, appeared in the same way on her left forearm, and last, the ancient sword of Avei coalesced in her grip.

Trissiny shifted to point it straight at Ildrin’s heart. “DROP THEM.”

Raathi and both privates instantly did.

“…oh,” Layla said softly.

Ildrin had not dropped the wand, but she slowly lowered her arm, the weapon dangling loosely from her grip now. The expression with which she stared at the paladin of her goddess was lost, desolate.

“I…didn’t mean…any of this.”

“I don’t care what you meant,” Trissiny snapped. “Now there is only justice. Put down that weapon and face the consequences of your actions with some honor, for once. I will not tell you again.”

She took one step forward, still glowing, and the golden wings shifted, arching out behind her.

Ildrin closed her eyes for a moment.

Then she opened them, and raised her arm again to aim the wand at Trissiny. Her grip, suddenly, was perfectly steady.

“Don’t do it,” Trissiny warned, shifting to a combat stance, shield partially upraised between them.

“I…can’t,” Ildrin said quietly. A strange little smile hovered about her lips, though tears began pouring down her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I’m just not strong enough. If everything I believed was…”

“Falaridjad, don’t you dare,” the paladin barked, shifting forward. “Drop it and—”

Lightning blasted against her, having no effect. The bolt sizzled out a foot before it even reached the shield. That didn’t stop Ildrin from firing another, and another yet behind it. Her face was calm, resigned, and still streaked by fresh tears.

“Stop it!” Trissiny bellowed over the vicious crackling of electricity.

“Sister, stand down!” Raathi pleaded.

“I’m sorry,” Ildrin said again, “but I won’t.”

Then she turned to aim the wand up at Layla.

Trissiny, apparently unencumbered by the metal she now wore, uncoiled like a spring. She was too far distant to effectively rush with her shield, but Ildrin was just barely within the range of her sword, fully extended.

The tip lodged in her throat just below the chin.

Blood poured as if from a faucet, quickly staining her white robes, and then the ground around her as she stumbled backward to slump against the far wall. Raathi retreated, staring down at the dying priestess in open-mouthed horror.

Silence finally descended, cruelly, forcing them to listen to the wet rattle of Ildrin’s last breaths. Even had either of the remaining Light-wielders wanted to, that was beyond their skill to heal. Too much blood lost, too much of it pouring into her lungs, the wound itself a total disruption of a delicate piece of anatomy. A random burst of healing light would only consign her to die more slowly, and in more pain.

Basra shook her head. “A coward to the very end.”

The armored paladin simply stood in the middle of the room, staring at the floor with all eyes on her. The sword she held in a firm grip, pointed down. Scarlet blood dripped slowly from its tip.

The remaining apprentices had gathered themselves, now, and crept hesitantly forward.

“Jasmine?” Tallie asked uncertainly. “…Jas?”

Layla softly cleared her throat, reaching out to lay her small hand on one silver pauldron.

“Trissiny?”

Trissiny drew in a sudden, heavy breath through her teeth, threw her head back, and let out a wild, piercing scream of pure, helpless rage.

“WE’RE SUPPOSED TO BE BETTER!” she roared, stepped forward, and viciously kicked Ildrin in the chest.

The priestess only slumped sideways, already beyond feeling it.

“You’ve got some things to deal with,” Basra said calmly, “but right now, you need to suck it up, soldier. Grieving has to wait until the battle is done.”

“Oh, my fucking gods,” Darius snarled. “Lady, don’t you ever stop—”

“She’s right,” Trissiny interrupted, turning around. “And don’t bother arguing with this one, Darius, it’s a waste of time even when she’s not right. We still have work to do, here. The innocent and the guilty, the living and the dead, all must be dealt with. And then,” she added, curling her lip in a snarl, “I am going to go find the one responsible for all this, and deal with him.”

“No, you are not,” Layla stated, glancing at the other two apprentices before returning her gaze to Trissiny’s. “We are.”

 

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13 – 21

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The King of the Punaji strode onto the tower platform to find it already abuzz with activity, as were the other towers of the Rock itself, and to judge by the distant lights, every defensive emplacement across the harbor. It might be their alliance with Tiraas that secured Puna Dara from retribution by other naval powers, but the Punaji were not foolish enough to blithely rely upon it. The deep hum of a fully-charged mag cannon occupying the center of the tower platform attested to that.

“Papa!” Ruda said with clear relief. “The signals are in from the other towers; all cannons are ready to fire on command. That thing is a much more mobile target than a ship, but it’s cruising around in predictable circles out there. I’ve given orders for every artillery team to focus on one spot in its established course, but we’re inevitably going to have some missed shots once it starts reacting. That’s as much as I wanted to order without you here.”

“Well done, Zari,” Blackbeard rumbled, joining her at the battlements and placing a heavy hand on her shoulder. Together, they stared out into the night, and the augmented sea serpent dominating the harbor. As she had said, it was in some kind of odd little patrol route, swimming around and around in a tight circle right in the center of the bay, as if going out of its way to avoid impacting the docks or ships. It was wasting a lot of energy, too; sea serpents were not designed to move with their upper bodies extending out of the water. This thing was deliberately making a show of itself, which implied direction by a much greater intelligence than an animal should have. “To judge by the gadgetry plating that aberration, I surmise your friends have failed to negotiate.”

“I trust my friends,” Ruda said, glaring at the circling monster. “It was worth trying. Sometimes, some people just can’t be reasoned with.”

“It’s good that you understand that, little minnow. Prepare to fire!” he added in a booming voice of command. “Signal the other towers to fire at will upon this weapon’s discharge!”

“Aye, sir!” barked the nearby artillery specialist, hunkering over her mag cannon’s runic controls and staring down its huge barrel, while another soldier swiftly ran signal flags up and a third flashed the beam of a fairy lamp to illuminate them.

“As soon as we fire, it’s war, Papa,” Ruda said grimly. “It’ll be war in our streets.”

“That is not a threat, Zari,” Blackbeard rumbled. “Even if only meant as one, the harbor is unsafe while it’s out there. We are the sea. Without our navy, without merchant ships, Puna Dara is crippled. This is war. I have not rushed to confrontation, but once we are attacked, I will not hesitate.”

“Yes, sir.”

The King’s chest swelled, and he roared, “FIRE AT WILL!”

The cannoneer had been tracking the beast, her weapon’s levitation charms straining to adjust it upon its hinged and spring-loaded mounts; mag cannons were easier and quicker to aim than older conventional artillery, but that was not saying much. At Rajakhan’s command, she immediately yanked the ignition lever.

Everyone’s hair stood up and the tower was illuminated by a white glow as the mag cannon discharged a tremendous beam of pure energy, momentarily cutting off all conversation with its deafening, metallic roar, oddly reminiscent of the semi-mechanical serpent’s. It was a glancing hit; the beam raked one side of the monster’s upthrust body, sending it careening away, then gouged a path of steam and spray through the ocean as the cannoneer tried to adjust, following the beast’s movement. The beam persisted for less than ten seconds, though, and the heavy weapon was awkward to move; she did not get it back onto its target before the energy expired.

Per the King’s orders, however, more fire immediately followed, from each of the mag cannon emplacements on the Rock and the harbor walls. Massive streams of pure arcane energy lit the night, blazing from the arc of Puna Dara’s docks and filling the center of the harbor with an inescapable field of destruction. Not every shot connected; not every shot that hit was a direct blow. Two beams struck the serpent dead on, however, and three others managed glancing strikes off various portions of its long body as it flailed under the assault.

A mag cannon could bore a hole through a fortress wall or obliterate a warship with a single shot. A famously lucky hit by an Imperial mag artillery team had once cleaved a dragon right out of the sky. They failed, however, to sink the beast.

Even as its hide was ignited with a furious torrent of energy and lightning arced from its beleaguered body across the surface of the water, the serpent did not go down. Its metal plating flared alight, the spiny ridges along its back blazing with the intensity of the sun, and apparently diffusing even the colossal energy of the mag cannon fire and dispersing it back into the ocean itself. Waves surged outward toward the docks, whipped up both by the artillery and the sea serpent’s thrashing.

The cannons fell silent, having all fired within seconds of each other; it would take roughly a minute of recharging before they were ready to discharge again at full power.

Still glowing and sparking with residual energy, the sea serpent reared up again, opened its tremendous jaws and let out another deafening roar which boomed out across the harbor.

Princess Zaruda gripped the battlements, sticking her head out toward the sea, and roared right back. Soldiers on the tower followed suit, brandishing staves and swords, and the wordless call was taken up and spread rapidly across the walls of the whole fortress. Faced with an apparently indestructible, unstoppable foe, the Punaji screamed defiance into the dark.

King Rajakhan, however, stood still and silent, one hand resting upon the battlements, watching for whatever fate brought next.


“I won’t hold that against him,” Ayuvesh said magnanimously to the group staring in horror at his massive screen. “Perfectly reasonable reaction to my little pet’s sudden appearance in the harbor. In fact, it makes a very useful object lesson!” He turned a beaming smile upon them, his overt jolliness not quite hiding the venom lurking at the edges of the expression. “Much better in the long run that Rajakhan understands there is nothing he can do against the serpent. This way, hopefully, I will not have to make any demonstrations upon anything which bleeds.”

“You piece of shit,” Gabriel growled, striding to the edge of the platform and leveling his scythe.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Seemingly unperturbed at having a divine weapon pointed at him, Ayuvesh shook a chiding finger. “Careful where you swing that thing, Hand of Death. Yes, yes, we all know you can reap the life from everyone here. Just be advised that if you do, Puna Dara will soon follow. My will alone keeps the beast in check, now that it is awake.” Abruptly, his jovial expression collapsed into a flat stare. “It will not attack…for now. I will give you a few hours to return to the Rock and explain the situation to the King; my pet can withstand the venting of his outrage until then. Beyond that point, however, I expect the Infinite Order to be shown some consideration in Puna Dara.” Slowly, he leaned back in his chair, turning the walking machine again to face them directly. “Once these extremely reasonable and basic conditions are satisfied, perhaps we can resume our discussion. But I see no reason to negotiate until my people’s safety is assured. Especially not with interlopers who talk with one face and scheme with another. And now…” He raised one hand to make a languid gesture at them—or rather, at the doorway behind them. “Until then, children, it would seem you have a rather urgent errand to run. I trust you remember the way out?”


“Your Grace…es.” Inspector Jaahri paused, cleared his throat, and then adjusted his lapels, the living portrait of a man knocked off balance. “I assure you, this situation is under control. If you will allow me to do—”

“Well, drat,” Bishop Darling said, turning to Syrinx, “now he’s gone all diplomatic. That looked rather promising for a moment, there.”

“I never get to have any fun,” she replied petulantly. “Well, if the boy is through making threats, I suppose this’ll go more quickly.”

“Now, see here,” the Inspector said loudly.

“Hush. You’re done.” Basra flicked her fingers at him in a contemptuous gesture, turning a cold shoulder to Jaahri and addressing the rest of the group. “Fortunately, I did not just traipse off into the sunset after interrupting my old friend Falaridjad trying to illegally arrest you kids. I can only surmise from this debacle that you’ve been trying to unravel this affair yourselves in spite of repeated advice to keep safely out of it. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know someone competent has been addressing the matter while you scurried around wasting time.”

“All that’s a little strong,” Darius complained.

“Meet Bishop Syrinx,” Jasmine muttered. Schwartz clenched his fists, breathing slowly and evenly and making a concerted effort not to look at either Basra or Jenell. Meesie, meanwhile, had puffed herself up like a pincushion and was emitting a high, constant hiss.

“All right, this is enough,” Jaahri barked, trying to reassert control. He took a menacing step toward Syrinx. “I will have to insist—”

Jenell’s sword hissed as she yanked it from its sheath and strode forward, pointing the blade at his heart and interposing herself between him and Syrinx.

Jaahri halted, staring at her in clear disbelief. “Young woman,” he said finally, “I am an Imperial Inspector.” For good measure, he pointed at the silver gryphon badge pinned to his coat. “Assaulting me constitutes treason.”

“Congratulations,” she replied, deadpan. “Step away from the Bishop while you’ve still got legs, fool. You just started to charge one of the Sisterhood’s top blademasters. If I meant you harm, I’d have let you do it.”

“Thank you, Covrin,” Basra said lightly. “In any case, I have been investigating this conspiracy with every resource available to me.”

“And that includes me!” Darling said in a cheerful tone, raising a hand. “Hello, everyone, my name is Antonio Darling and I serve as the Church’s liaison to the Imperial security council. My own contacts, working on information helpfully gathered by Bishop Syrinx, singled out branches of this mess among the military police. Including one Inspector Jaahri—who, as we just learned even while gathering intel, was himself on the way to the home of a prominent Eserite to investigate the mysterious demise of one of the best leads in this case.”

“That is slander,” Jaahri hissed.

“Actually he’s got the documents to prove it,” Flora piped up.

“So, being written down, it’s technically libel,” Fauna added.

“Except, proof is absolute defense against a charge of slander,” Flora corrected her.

“Oh, that’s right. So it’s just… What was the word he used?”

Jenell had not lowered her weapon, and now smiled at Jaahri across it. “Treason.”

“Antonio, so help me,” Basra complained, “if your little vaudevillians start including my aide in that insufferable act of theirs I shall be very cross with you.”

“Heel, girls,” he said dutifully. Both elves stuck out their tongues at his back. “Anyhow, we came down here in something of a hurry; we only just learned of this development.”

“But not too much of a hurry to take precautions,” Syrinx added with a predatory smile. “I have a squad from the Third Legion on the way here.”

“And,” Darling said complacently, “I took the time to start several balls rolling before leaving Imperial Command. For your edification, Inspector, General Panissar and Lord Vex are on that council with me, so if you were entertaining thoughts of going over my head, I hope your arms are a lot longer than they look. If you act very quickly and are very adroit, perhaps by this time tomorrow you won’t be in a cell. Who knows? If you’re a lot more capable than I think you are, you might even still be employed by his Majesty’s government.”

Jaahri stared at him, breathing loudly through his nose. The other soldiers in the room watched both him and their sergeant uncertainly.

“Or,” Basra said into the ensuing quiet, “you can attempt what you are contemplating right now. With no surviving witnesses, things might still go in your favor. Then again, you are in a room with two powerful divine casters, one a blademaster, two elves, a Butler, a Silver Legionnaire and…” She glanced at Schwartz with a faint smirk. “…a witch who, despite his numerous failings, is probably capable of demolishing your squad single-handedly. Think carefully, Inspector. Take your time. Some of us can spare it.”

“There seems to be no probable cause to seek arrest here,” the sergeant said suddenly. “Men, you are to ignore any such orders. If the Inspector sees fit to file a complaint, let it be on my head.”

“Yes, sir!” several of them chorused in clear relief.

Jaahri’s left eye twitched violently. He drew in an exceptionally deep breath and let it out through his teeth.

“This is not over,” he promised the two Bishops, and swept toward the door. His dramatic exit was ruined by the fact that Flora and Fauna were still standing in it, and made no move to clear the way.

“You may want to curtail that melodramatic streak before being interviewed by Intelligence,” Darling suggested. “In my experience, the innocent don’t issue threats. Girls, let the man out.”

Jaahri made a point of brushing aggressively against Flora as he departed. She exaggeratedly pantomimed fainting against the door frame, causing Fauna to snicker.

“Weren’t you just making threats, Sweet?” Tallie asked.

Bishop Darling turned to her and winked.

The sergeant cleared his throat. “Well! I guess our business here is done. Unless your Graces will be needing us for anything else?”

“Report to Imperial Command, if you would, Sergeant,” Darling said politely. “That is a request; I’m not empowered to give you orders. But Intelligence will be wanting your testimony on this anyway, and the faster you tell your side, the less opportunity that one has to throw you lads under the carriage.”

“Thank you, your Grace, I’ll do that.” He tipped his cap politely, then again to Glory. “A good evening to you, your Graces. Apologies for the inconvenience, Ms. Sharvineh. Fall in, men.”

There was a slightly awkward silence while the soldiers filed out, Smythe following them into the hall. The moment they heard the front door click shut, Tallie let out a whoop. “Now that is what—”

“Shut up.” Darling’s voice was not loud, but flat and forceful; it commanded instant silence. “You little idiots have come within a hair’s breadth of getting yourselves killed. You actually did get Carruthers Treadwell killed, so, thanks for that.”

“I was the one who invited him here, Sweet,” Glory said calmly. “The security of this house has never failed before. I still don’t know how someone was able to commit an act of such violence without alerting my wards.”

“I’ll wager you’ve never made yourself an enemy of renegade Salyrites, Sharvineh,” said Basra. “You were probably better off trusting Schwartz than your own passive defenses in that regard.” She gave him a suspiciously bright smile. “So long as you can deal with his tendency to develop inappropriate and obsessive crushes, he’s a very useful boy to have around.”

Schwartz grabbed Meesie, who tried to lunge at Basra from across the room, squealing ferociously. “Always a pleasure, your Grace,” he said tersely. “Glory, unless you need me for something else, I’ll just be in the kitchen. I imagine it will mess up your nice parlor if I set that woman on fire, which is where this is heading.”

“Maybe absenting yourself is a good idea, Herschel,” Glory replied softly. Ami, meanwhile, let out a theatrical groan and rolled her eyes dramatically.

“And Talaari,” Basra added. “This is downright nostalgic! Almost the whole gang, together again.”

“I am here to further my career,”Ami said haughtily, “this being a most prestigious house in which to perform. It was going rather well until the unfortunate homicide. No offense meant to anyone, but I would be delighted if the ‘gang’ remained separate. Every time I see any of you people, I end up with some maniac trying to kill me.”

“Wow, you weren’t kidding,” Darling mused while Schwartz slipped out the back, still clutching a struggling Meesie in both hands. “She really talks that way.”

“Ami’s another one who’s very good at what she does,” Basra said dourly, “and so annoying it’s almost not worth it. I seem to attract them, somehow. Anyway! We both have to go resume cleaning up this mess, so we can’t loiter here much longer. Ms. Sharvineh, assorted junior reprobates, I’ve given orders for the Legionnaires coming to escort you to the Temple of Avei.”

“Now, just a ding-danged second here,” Tallie began stridently.

“If,” Basra all but shouted, “you choose to go! I strongly encourage you to do so—renegade Salyrites may be willing to take on a famous socialite’s personal defenses, but the Sisterhood of Avei is another matter. If you prefer to take your chances alone, though, they will stay here to secure the house until further notice.”

“My neighbors will love that,” Glory murmured.

“The problem,” said Jasmine, “is that we know for a fact this conspiracy has a presence in the Sisterhood of Avei. The Guild is the only cult we believe isn’t infiltrated.”

“And that’s why you don’t let anybody corner you alone,” Basra said in a tone of exaggerated patience. “Stay in the Temple’s main areas—or better yet, in the Silver Legion’s public grounds. I’m sure you know your way around, Jasmine.”

“And for the record,” Darling added, “just in case it comes up, the Huntsmen of Shaath are also clean.”

“Hard to imagine that becoming helpful,” said Darius.

“Yeah,” Darling said sharply. “All of which makes it very curious that you left the Guild in the first place.”

“The thing about that,” Tallie began.

“We fucked up,” Ross interrupted. He shrugged when everyone turned to stare at him. “That’s the truth. We saw cults infiltrated an’ panicked. Didn’t think about the Guild bein’ harder to corrupt.”

“Well, at least they can learn,” Basra said, shaking her head. “The good news is that all of this may be coming to a head very soon. We’ll take steps to get you lot safely back to the Guild if it’s not cleaned up by tomorrow. What I assume you don’t know is that today, Archpope Justinian gave an address in which he warned in the strongest possible terms against clerics of any faith prioritizing Church loyalty over obligations to their own gods.”

“Wait…what?” Tallie said incredulously. “I thought this whole thing was about Justinian’s inner circle making some kind of power play!”

Darling and Syrinx exchanged a look.

“Kid,” he said, “we’re his inner circle. And one thing we know Justinian likes to do is use his loyal agents to winnow each other down.”

Layla suddenly straightened up, her eyes widening. “He’s cleaning house.”

“Well, good,” Basra said, “at least one of them has a mind.”

“Well, it ain’t me,” said Darius. “What do you mean, cleaning house?”

“The general tensions between the Church and the Imperial government were brought to the very brink of open violence just a few weeks ago,” Darling said somberly. “The details are classified, but suffice it to say, each runs secret projects, and two of theirs blundered into each other in the dark and it got messy. Sharidan knows the Archpope has designs on increasing his power at the Throne’s expense; all that restrains him from acting is public opinion and the support of the Houses and cults. If the government moves on the Church without damn solid evidence of wrongdoing…”

“It would be the Enchanter Wars all over again,” Jasmine whispered.

“Probably not that bad,” said Basra, “but it’s enough of an issue that the Throne having any legitimate, actionable grievance is an existential threat to Justinian’s ambitions. He has been frantically rebuilding bridges; the two main fronts appear to be this business and what’s unfolding in Puna Dara. The Archpope is setting up those loyal to him but whom he doesn’t need to take a fall, and prove his goodwill toward the Silver Throne.”

“And that’s why their moves have been so…reckless and unwise,” Layla said eagerly. “He’s directing them to make mistakes on purpose!”

“Oh, he’s not directing this,” Basra said grimly. “That would leave a trail Imperial Intelligence can follow, and Justinian is far too clever for that. No, it’s as simple as placing incompetent people in positions of leadership, and letting events unfold naturally—hence Ildrin Falaridjad. No one who has worked with that whingeing, glory-hounding nitwit would place her in charge of a fruit stand, much less a conspiracy.”

“Wait,” Jasmine said, “what’s happening in Puna Dara?”

“None of your business!” Syrinx barked. “You little nincompoops have caused enough damage! If you truly have no regard for your own welfare, as seems to be the case, then at least quit messing up the efforts of people who can actually do this work!”

“This is a conflict between the Universal Church and the Silver Throne, ultimately,” Darling said in a calmer tone. “Everyone you’ve encountered so far is considered expendable by the real players, including yourselves, and us. This is over your pay grade, kids. We have contacts within the Imperial Government and every cult we could reach moving to clean up the conspirators as we speak. This is going to unfold quickly, and it’s going to get a lot messier before it gets cleaned up. The best thing you can do now is hunker down and butt out. Let the Legions keep you safe until this blows over.”

“And if you can’t manage that,” Basra added disdainfully, “at least try not to get any more useful witnesses murdered.”

“Well,” Darius said after a short pause, “no promises, but we’ll see what we can do.”

 

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13 – 20

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“All right,” Inspector Jaahri said in a weary tone, “one more time, then. Miss Sakhavenid found—”

“With all respect, Inspector,” Glory said, finally with open sharpness, “we have been over this six times now. It is neither a long nor a complex story.”

“I find that repetition helps weed out accidental little falsehoods that tend to creep into any narrative,” the Inspector replied, matching Glory’s stare flatly. “Or do you imagine yourself to be an expert on Imperial investigative procedure?”

“It is not procedure for you to have dismissed the entire house full of guests,” Jasmine interjected.

“Quiet, girl,” Jaahri snapped, shooting her a sidelong look.

“Each of those,” she pressed on, “was a potential witness and suspect, and I know you did not have time to interview them all in detail—”

“Sergeant,” the Inspector said loudly, “if that young woman interrupts me again, take her into custody.”

The tension in the room increased significantly, and it had not been slight to begin with. Glory and her staff for the evening had been gathered in the downstairs parlor at the insistence of the Inspector, along with Schwartz and Ami. The rest of the house had been cleared out, at Jaahri’s insistence, leaving them alone with eight Imperial soldiers, who had positioned themselves in a ring around the civilians. Their demeanor was cold almost to the point of aggression; they stared balefully at the gathered Eserites (and Vesker and Salyrite) as if expecting to have to break out wands at any moment. A rather peculiar attitude for soldiers to have toward a group of young servants whom they had not been informed were Guild apprentices.

Smythe was gliding smoothly around the chamber, offering tea to each soldier in turn, and being irritably rebuffed every time. Which, of course, did not ruffle his equanimity in the slightest.

“Why are your men not investigating the house, or the crime scene?” Glory asked, her tone again deceptively mild.

“Madam,” Jaahri said impatiently, folding his arms, “I will ask the questions, if you don’t mind—”

“I mind,” she interrupted. “In fact, I have had just about enough of this. It beggars belief that you would dismiss an entire house full of suspects only to sit here grilling those least likely to have been implicated in this crime.”

“Don’t presume that I know nothing of this matter except what I’ve learned here tonight,” the Inspector retorted. “I already have my suspects, Ms. Sharvineh, thank you for your concern. For instance, the late Mr. Treadwell was not a social creature, and in particular was last seen in seclusion due to an embarrassing misstep within his own cult. Someone exerted significant pressure to bring him out to this event…at which he was subsequently murdered. And as luck would have it, I happen to know already who did so.”

“You accuse me of this?” She raised one eyebrow, her expression artfully skeptical.

“I am not yet ready to make accusations,” Jaahri replied, tucking his notebook away in an inner pocket of his coat. “But I am well aware, Ms. Sharvineh, that there is an ongoing matter here, and that you have attempted to conceal the connection from me. This group of young people very closely matches the description of a group of Thieves’ Guild apprentices who were involved in the burglary of a temple of Avei, an event connected to Mr. Treadwell being reprimanded by his superiors in the Collegium. Now, it would seem he has been silenced.”

“Now, that’s real interesting,” Tallie snapped. “Since Schwartz and Ami weren’t part of—”

“Hzzt!” Ross grunted, driving an elbow into her side nearly hard enough to knock her over. Glory glanced over at Tallie, letting out a soft sigh.

“And that is an admission,” Jaahri said with grim satisfaction. “I believe you had all better accompany me to the barracks to discuss this further, in more detail.”

“She is right, though,” Glory said thoughtfully, holding up a hand to forestall Darius, who had straightened up and unfolded his arms at the Inspector’s last comment. “Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Talaari are not involved in that. Why would you see fit to detain them? Herschel is a guest this evening—the only one you did not dismiss. And I cannot fathom what connection you think my paid musician might have to the murder.”

“The fact that you know less than I is the reason this will be quickly solved,” Inspector Jaahri stated. “Sergeant, start gathering these people up, all of—damn it, will you go away?” he snapped at Smythe, who had offered him a canape. The Butler bowed in silence and retreated to stand by the door. Jasmine glanced at him once, pressing her lips together; Smythe’s act had effectively removed him from the soldiers’ consideration except as a buzzing nuisance, and now he had placed himself in control of the room’s primary exit, holding a tray which would serve as either weapon or shield. Clearly, these troops were not accustomed to dealing with Butlers.

“Hershel,” Glory said calmly, “what do you have for neutralizing enemies in a crowd?”

“You are on thin ice, Sharvineh,” Jaahri warned.

“In fact I’ve got just the thing!” Schwartz replied, while Meesie bristled on his shoulder, chattering at the Inspector. “Cooked it up after our last go-round. You know, the one where we trounced a contingent of Svennish intelligence agents?” He cast a pointed look at Jaahri, who hesitated in the act of opening his mouth again. “Controlled chain lightning. I can cast it to arc only to targets I designate; a quick and clean way to clear out a room of mixed hostiles and friendlies. I’d sort of rather not, though. Lightning has a tendency to be lethal.”

“Are you aware that threatening a duly appointed agent of the Silver Throne is a crime, Mr. Schwartz?” the Inspector grated.

“Are you aware of the penalty for corruption for officers of the Emperor’s law?” Jasmine asked quietly.

“That does it,” Jaahri snapped, pointing at her. “Sergeant, arrest that one. Now.”

A man wearing sergeant’s stripes glanced at Jasmine, then at Schwartz, and swallowed. “Sir…”

“Did I stutter?” the Inspector asked incredulously, rounding on him.

“A thought occurs to me,” Glory said idly, inspecting her flawlessly manicured nails. “We know that poor Mr. Treadwell was involved in a conspiracy which has been pursuing these apprentices. All of us had been operating on the assumption, however, that this was strictly a matter among the cults. I confess it simply did not occur to me that there would be enemy agents among the Imperial Army. And yet, I am stymied as to why else you would choose to dismiss most of the possible suspects from investigation, Inspector, or how you would know to include Mr. Schwartz and the bard in this…net, of yours. Tell me, what do you think will happen when I bring my own influence to bear upon you?” A feline smile uncoiled itself across her lips. “I am not, as I suspect you know, without powerful friends.”

“You have managed to say the worst possible thing available to you in this circumstance, Sharvineh,” Jaahri said. “You are all under arrest, and I strongly suggest you comply voluntarily. Resisting his Majesty’s—”

Smythe interrupted him by clearing his throat loudly; the Butler, in fact, was in the process of slipping back into the room, having ducked out while everyone was distracted. Jaahri whirled on him, reaching into a pocket of his coat, and one of the soldiers actually drew a wand. Smythe ignored all of them, directing himself to a point in midair near the center of the parlor.

“Bishops Darling and Syrinx to see you, madam,” he intoned, stepping aside.

They paced inside in lockstep, both wearing their formal Church robes and tabards, but both moved with the graceful stride of a pair of leopards, their eyes snapping to Inspector Jaahri as soon as they entered the room. Even the ecclesiastical uniforms did not detract from the effect; these were plainly here as Eserite and Avenist, not Church officials.

“Oh, now, don’t let us interrupt you, Inspector,” Darling said in an uncharacteristically flat tone.

Behind them, three more women strode into the parlor, immediately fanning out to assert full control of the exit; Flora, Fauna, and Jenell Covrin also stared coldly, making a point of watching the assembled soldiers.

“Yes, by all means,” Syrinx growled, fondling the ornate hilt of her sword. “Finish your thought.”


Akhatrya rapped on the wooden door frame even as he stepped into the room without waiting to be invited; the palace seneschal enjoyed certain privileges as well as responsibilities, and being on hand to assist the royal family whether they sought him out or not involved some blending of the two. It was late, and this wasn’t strictly his responsibility—any number of lesser servants could have seen to it—but he made a point of keeping an eye on any of the family who were under unusual stress, or acting out of the ordinary.

Both conditions applied to Princess Zaruda this evening.

She did not commonly choose to spend time in her father’s office, or any place predominated by papers and books. Neither did the King, but Rajakhan never shirked his duties, no matter how tedious he found them. It was a safe bet, however, that when the King did not need to be actively poring over documents, he would be elsewhere, and so Ruda had had the office to herself all night. She’d spent the evening having clerks bring her a variety of textbooks, financial records and copies of several treaties. Now, Akhatrya entered to find her hunched over an open volume of conversion tables, muttering to herself and tracing one fingertip across a page as she read.

“Would you like anything, your Highness?” he asked diffidently.

“Think I got everything I wanted, thanks,” Ruda muttered without looking up.

The seneschal smiled faintly. “Good. I meant more in the way of food or drink, however. Perhaps a pillow?”

“It isn’t that late,” she said, finally lifting her eyes to frown at him. The office had two narrow windows looking out across the battlements at the harbor, which showed nothing but darkness at this hour. It was not dim, thanks to the fairy lamps.

“Very good, your Highness,” Akhatrya said, bowing. “I am, of course, at your disposal, should you have questions about anything you read.”

She was already frowning at the book again, and absently shook her head. The seneschal waited another moment before bowing again, despite the fact she was no longer looking at him, and turning to go.

“Hey, Akhatrya, wait a second.”

“Your Highness?” He turned back to face her, folding his hands in front of himself.

Ruda almost grudgingly tore her gaze away from the columns of figures she was studying. “Let me pose you a hypothetical.”

“I am at your service.”

“Suppose you worked for a King or Queen who wanted to change the standard of measurements we use from the common system to the dwarven system. How would you advise them to go about implementing that?”

He hesitated for a moment, thinking. “Well… In honesty, Princess, my first recommendation would be not to.”

She drummed her fingers once on another book, staring at him. When she said nothing further, he continued.

“Forcing changes in people’s way of life from the position of the Crown is always tricky, Princess, and should be done as sparingly as possible. This is true for all rulers, but most especially for those governing a people as free-spirited and prone to defiance as the Punaji. Any hint of heavy-handed action without a clear and specific purpose will agitate the populace. That, in particular, would impose costs upon everyone, most especially merchants. Converting from one system—any kind of system—to another is always a difficult transition.”

She let out a soft huff, and turned her head to scowl at the dark windows. “If there’s one thing I would expect of Punaji, it’s not to carry on following a mindless tradition when there are better, more effective ways. Especially a tradition that it turns out was created by the Elder Gods for the specific fucking purpose of holding people back and making our lives difficult. Akhatrya, have you ever looked at the tables of dwarven measurements? It’s all so…efficient. Everything’s derived from a base measurement designed to be specifically useful. Everything scales in neat increments of ten—no figuring or fumbling involved, if you can damn well count you can do shit it takes a trained accountant to handle now. No wonder the dwarves switched over. If they can do it, why the hell can’t anyone else? Why not the Punaji? What the economy alone would save in the long run is more than worth the hassle of converting!”

“If only people saw life in terms of neat costs and rewards,” he said wryly. “Your Highness, I have not been party to your political education. Are you aware of the systems of government used by the dwarves?”

“Mm, not in much detail,” she admitted. “I could probably tell you more about Tiraan or Sifanese or Arkanian politics than the Five Kingdoms. They’re pretty insular an’ they bend over backwards to accommodate us whenever we do business; I’ve mostly learned how to show ’em proper manners when they visit and leave their inner workings alone. Hell, even the Sifanese are less standoffish about people getting into their internal business.”

“I see,” Akhatrya said thoughtfully. “Are you acquainted with the concept of socialism?”

“No, but I like it already,” she replied, grinning. “Sounds cuddly.”

“It’s an idea which is implemented, in one form or another, in the governing policies of each of the Five Kingdoms,” he explained. “Basically, the core contention of socialism is that nothing which is necessary for life should be the subject of personal profit, for anyone. Food, lodgings, and medical care, for example, are all provided to all citizens equally by the state. The different dwarven nations have varying standards of what is necessary; by and large, they are all more highly organized at the state level than any human nation, and their governments provide a very wide range of services compared to ours. They have elaborate public education, for example, all the way through the university level, and state-sponsored arts, museums, scientific research, loans of business capital… Obviously, this necessitates a very high level of government involvement in all aspects of life, and is funded by a heavy income tax, levied progressively according to individual wealth.”

Ruda stared at him in blank silence for a long moment.

“Well,” she said at last, “that’s not quite the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard, but I respect it for trying.”

Akhatrya grinned. “Consider this, though. Even with most of their economies in shambles and gross domestic products flatlined at best for the last ten years, the Five Kingdoms have universally low crime, almost no unemployment, and zero homelessness. Most societies in the state of economic vulnerability they currently suffer succumb to further related maladies, notably outbreaks of disease. No such thing has happened in the Dwarnskolds. They suffer some privation, but they do so equally. The strong do not prey upon the weak, and society itself endures without leaning upon its most vulnerable members.”

“Akhatrya, it sounds like you like this cockamamie scheme,” she exclaimed. “You can’t possibly be thinking of trying something like that in fucking Puna Dara! We’d have a revolution within five fucking minutes!”

“And that,” he said, nodding, “is exactly my point. I heartily approve of you studying the ways of our neighbors to learn from their strengths, Princess. But never forget that we are not dwarves. We are not even Imperials. We are Punaji, and not every useful idea that exists in the world would be useful to us. Some, though they might indeed prove to be assets, are simply too far from the core of who we are. The people will not tolerate anything they see as an attack upon the spirit of our nation.”

She turned again to frown at the window, but this time the expression was more thoughtful than disgruntled.

“The spirit of our nation,” Ruda said quietly, “is already under attack. A long, slow one that we can’t seem to do anything to halt. There’s no room for a pirate nation in the world as it’s shaping up. We already depend on the Empire’s goodwill to prevent one of the other naval powers of the Azure Sea from invading us, and isn’t that a constant fucking insult. Sooner or later, we have to either change who we are, or…give up. Forget who we are, be absorbed by Tiraas like the Calderaan and the Stalweiss and the Onkawi and…” She trailed off, and swallowed heavily. “Gods. I hope Mama and Papa are gone before it comes to that. I don’t want them to have to see it.”

After a moment, Akhatrya stepped quietly over to the desk, and reached out to lay a hand upon her shoulder. It was not strictly appropriate, but the Rock was probably the least formal of the government palaces in all the world. They were, after all, Punaji.

Ruda heaved a sigh and cleared her throat, turning back to regard him with a freshly incisive expression, and he let his hand fall, stepping back.

“We’re already the Five Kingdoms’ biggest trading partner, though,” she said. “Everything they make and wanna sell overseas comes through Puna Dara. Since the Narisian Treaty they’ve vastly increased the business they do that way instead of selling to the Empire, too. There is no possible way Punaji merchants aren’t already familiar with dwarven systems of weights and measures.”

“That is true,” he allowed. “Most have found it profitable to endure our neighbors’ little peculiarities. And if the systems are indeed as superior as you say, there may well be some who already favor them.”

“So, getting back to my original question.” Ruda leaned back in her father’s chair, staring at the far wall, and propped her (thankfully clean) boots up on a copy of a tariff agreement with the Kingdom of Stavulheim. “How to implement that, while still respecting the independent spirit of the Punaji. Since the precedent’s already there, I think we could begin by encouraging the use of dwarven standards without mandating them. Go slow, go careful, gradually get the population more acquainted with ’em an’ make sure there’s widespread acceptance before starting to switch actual government practice. Hnh, I much prefer to get shit done, but I guess you’ve gotta take your time when dealing with the egos of tens of thousands of people.”

“The safe way is the slow way, as a rule,” he agreed, smiling again.

Ruda looked back up at him, grinning. “So! You like my general strategy, then? Anything you’d add?”

“Well,” Akhatrya said, “you asked me what I would do, hypothetically, if I served a monarch who insisted on pursuing such a course. In that situation…yes, I think I would proceed much as you describe. And I also would offer thanks to the gods that my people were in the hands of a wise Queen.”

Her smile actually faltered, and the princess cleared her throat, averting her eyes. “Ah… Yeah, well, I guess—”

Both of them stiffened as an alarm bell began tolling outside the fortress, quickly followed by a second, and then more.

Ruda swung her legs back to the floor and bounded up, crossing to the window, where she pressed her face against the glass, peering out at the darkened harbor.

“What the fuck?” she exclaimed after a brief moment, then whirled and dashed for the door.


“THINK!” Ayuvesh thundered, his voice booming from the walls of the cavern.

The group actually hesitated, which was just as well for the sake of diplomacy; Vadrieny had already burst forth, both Huntsmen had bows drawn, Gabriel was brandishing both scythe and saber, and even Toby had shifted to a ready stance.

“You servants of the Pantheon are always so quick to turn to violence,” the leader of the Rust continued, bestowing on them a mocking smile from his perch atop the walking machine. At the touch of his fingers upon the chair controls, it took a lumbering step backward, then shifted, awkwardly turning itself to face them at an angle. “Really, it’s not as if I don’t know who the lot of you are. Would I actually want to start a fight with you, here, in our own sanctum? Knowing it would cost the lives of many of my comrades, and incalculable damage to our home and resources? No, no, children, rest assured, I was not challenging you to battle.”

“Y’know, for a guy who talks so much about how put-upon he is,” Fross chimed irritably, “you spout a lot of what are really easy to take as threats.”

“This is a misunderstanding,” Toby said firmly. “I honestly have no idea what’s happening, and I have no qualms at all about telling you anything you want to know about the woman who stole the screen off your gateway. I can’t even say for sure if she’s the reason for this—”

“I would be willing to put money on that,” Gabriel growled.

Toby shot him a quelling look. “But we certainly have no attachment to her. Her behavior was not exactly friendly.”

Ayuvesh regarded him sardonically while he spoke, then lowered his gaze to study something set amid the controls on the arm of his mount’s seat. “Hummm. And yet, I find no indication of someone apart from you lot creeping around…” He paused, frowning. “And yet. A screen was remotely activated, and its position is currently unknown. So…perhaps.”

“Perhaps is a starting point,” Toby said soothingly, holding up both hands. “Look, we’ve already established that none of us here wants anything to get more violent than it already has.”

“Ah, yes, so we should now lay our cards on the table,” Ayuvesh said bitterly. “As you did when you mentioned this mysterious woman as soon as you entered.”

“Honestly, man, what would you have said?” Gabriel asked in exasperation.

Vadrieny turned on him with the same tone. “Are you under the impression that you’re helping, Gabe?”

“Not usually,” he muttered.

“Let me lay out for you some other things we have established,” Ayuvesh continued, again manipulating his controls. The walker retreated further, even as the other members of the Rust scattered to man various pieces of machinery, or disappear into side tunnels. “None of us are eager to volunteer information—perhaps understandably. You kids have a tendency to perceive threats in every little thing, and respond with the promise of your considerable capacity for brute force. I, on the other hand, respond to threats by…rearranging the playing field. The best way, I find, to avoid getting into a pitched battle is to make the process so uninviting that no one seeks to offer you violence.”

“Like you did to the Silver Legions,” said Juniper.

“You seem to think that was an extreme response,” Ayuvesh said grimly. “What’s more reasonable, when presented with a large, threatening force, than to remove that force from the board, as gently as possible? But you lot aren’t a Silver Legion. You have a lot more firepower, a lot less restraint, and not half the logistical hurdles involved in doing anything. Carefully incapacitating you isn’t really a prospect, I suppose. So I must, if we are to continue these discussions, somehow ensure your good behavior. I wish I could think of a less regrettable way to do so. Truly, I do.”

He pushed a lever and the walker turned to face one of the walls, which was already shifting into motion, its innumerable machine parts whirring and shuffling like a colossal swarm of ants. Metal arms extended from dozens of points, each bearing view screens of various sizes, and began fitting them together into a single, huge display, its image clear despite the lines of connection running across it and its wildly uneven edges.

The cobbled-together screen showed them an image of the city harbor under the moonlight. As they watched, the waters began to stir.

“I expect you kids to be respectful, henceforth,” Ayuvesh chided, “for the sake of Puna Dara.”


Ruda burst out of the fortress doors onto the battlements, racing for the foremost tower which extended into the harbor with Akhatrya right on her heels. It was chaos, but organized chaos; soldiers dashed alongside them, moving themselves into proper order, as more assembled in ranks in the Rock’s main courtyard below.

The princess and the seneschal reached the tower, troops hustling out of their way, and tore up its steps to the platform on top, where Ruda pressed herself against the crenelated wall, staring incredulously out over the harbor.

Ships were moored, but there was fortunately no active traffic at this hour, and thus no vessels were lost in the disturbance. The spot near the center of the bay, which alternately bubbled as if pressed upon from below and descended into a whirlpool, abruptly exploded, spraying water as far as the docks.

The thing that rose up from within was titanic, a thick, sinuous shape plated in irregular metal over its coiled scales. A row of metallic spikes ran along its spine, with lengths of wire connecting them and giving off sparks and arcs of lightning which danced across the surface of the water. Most of the massive sea serpent’s head was original flesh and bone, but its wedge-like lower jaw was entirely metal, and its right eye had been covered over with a huge patch connected to the plates and spikes climbing up its back. Into this was set a tremendous green fairy lamp which cast a sickly glow across the whole harbor.

Giant sea serpents did not come this close to the shore, they very rarely breached the surface and definitely did not vocalize. The augmented monstrosity finished showing that it did not respect any of these rules by throwing back its head and emitting a mighty roar which had a distinct undertone of metal scraping against metal.

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” Ruda roared right back, turning to Akhatrya and pointing accusingly out at the beast. “Look at this! This is what happens when I leave those assholes unsupervised!”

 

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